When to start your job search
Throughout my training I was constantly urged by mentors in the months prior to graduation to start applying for jobs - "It will be harder/take a lot longer than you think!". Well, take heed, finding a job in the current climate is particularly difficult - in some instances trusts are withdrawing funding for advertised positions, and besides this there are many applicants for each job - competition is tough. If you hope to stay in the area local to where you have studied, remember that everybody in your cohort will qualify around the same time, and you will all be competing for those jobs - you want to be ahead of the crowd. The bottom line is start early. Writing an effective personal statement which will appeal to an employer does take time, thought and practice - if you start thinking about it months in advance and familiarise yourself with the applications process, you will give yourself a head start. Sign up for automatic job updates relevant to your field of nursing on the NHS jobs website so that you have a good idea of what's out there, and start thinking about what kind of area/ward/environment you really want to work in. If you have an ultimate career goal, think about which opportunities will provide you with the most relevant experience and set you on the right path.
Before you apply
If you have an interest in an advertised position, contact the manager (details will be on the advert) and ask if you can visit the area and arrange to meet with her/him in order to discuss the details of the job. A manager I worked with on my final placement gave me this advice, and in my experience visiting is tremendously valuable to your application; it shows that you are really interested and willing to take initiative - it gets your face known. You will get a feeling for the job role and in many instances have the opportunity to take a tour and familiarise yourself with the area. Remember that in the applications process first impressions count - make the effort to dress practically though smartly and behave courteously, making sure you thank them for taking the time out of their schedule. Prior to the meeting prepare some pertinent questions and write them down to take with you. Consider topics such as what a perceptorship programme entails, what are the current initiatives running in the area, future priorities and goals etc. You will have some practical questions such as expected start dates - but remember to include some questions which portray the fact you have really looked at the job description carefully and taken an interest. Most managers are very pleased to see a visiting applicant and will really take the time to get to know you - so be prepared to talk a little bit about who you are and what you have been doing throughout your course, as well as what you hope to do in the future. Listen carefully to the information they provide and take some notes - this will invariably be pertinent to the interview questions. If you have the opportunity to visit before you apply, you will also have a better idea what to include in your personal statement - sometimes this isn't possible and time is of the essence, but it is still important to visit even if you have already applied. All in all, it can feel a bit daunting - but remember that if you are successful and get an interview, it is likely to be in the same place and with that manager - when would you rather see both for the first time?
Writing an effective personal statement
Assuming you are applying through the NHS online system, your personal statement will be your only real opportunity to make a personal mark. Most nursing jobs in your field will have some basic key skills and requirements in common - I found it helpful to review several job descriptions and find out what those common features were, and use this to write a basic personal statement relating my relevant placement experiences to those things. You can save this as a word document and then reinvent your basic format each time, adding more details in terms of the more specific skills relevant to the job and focusing on the personal attributes you feel you can offer which will be most valuable in that area. ALWAYS read carefully through the detailed job description, and when proof reading your personal statement tick off the requirements to ensure you have covered each one - if it is very long, it may not be possible to touch on everything, so decide beforehand which are the most important. This is valuable because whoever is short-listing applications is likely to refer to the job description and it shows that you have been conscientious and taken the time to understand their requirements. There are lots of good examples of nursing CVs and personal statements around the web, which can be a really helpful guide - but be careful not to plagiarise. In terms of presentation, make sure you spell check your statement before submitting it and you have used appropriate punctuation and paragraphing. Poor spelling and grammar will give a sloppy impression. Re-read your statement a few times to ensure you have a logical flow of ideas throughout - as a rule of thumb you should start with a brief introduction about yourself and where you are in your studies, and finish with a statement about why you think you would be a valuable contribution to their nursing team. It is a bonus if you can get others to proof read it as they may pick up on mistakes you have missed. All in all you are aiming to write a detailed but concise personal statement which also gives a flavour of your personal qualities and interest in the field.
Attending an interview can be a daunting experience for anybody. Thankfully, most band 5 interviews do not require you to make a presentation. Sometimes you will attend a group interview, but in most cases you will be interviewed individually. In almost all eventualities you will be interviewed by a panel rather than a single person. This sounds very daunting but most interviewers are highly skilled at making you feel comfortable within that scenario. Of course, you want to be mentally prepared for the challenge - so if details about the structure of the interview aren't provided, use your visit as an opportunity to ask so that you know what to expect. Preparation really is key to interview success. Expect to be asked to talk a little about yourself - this is often a little vague and open-ended, so remember to keep it relevant to the job and avoid talking about your hobbies unless commenting on a transferable skill. You should think about the point you're at in your studies, what they comprised of, any other relevant work experience, why you wanted to go into nursing and how you feel you have developed. You will almost always in some form or another be asked to talk about your strengths and/or weaknesses - make a short list of each. For every strength consider how you can apply that within the role/how it will add to the team, and an example of how you have displayed that attribute within your placement experiences. Turn each weakness into a strength - 'as a new student I struggled with ...., but I was able to overcome it by ....'. It goes without saying you should choose wisely - this isn't the time to reveal you have a habit of sleeping in. These seem like really simple points, but most people find it really hard to talk about themselves so be prepared. It's easy to get swept up revising different topics, only to find you draw a blank when it comes to more personal questions.
Hopefully you have already met the manager by now and have picked up some hints as to what topics might be covered - use this as your guide and read, read, read! Think about and write down the types of questions you might be asked, and memorise the key points you'll hope to cover in your answer - this will help prevent your mind going blank when nerves are at work. Just as important, for each question reflect on an experience from your practice placements (or other work experience) where you have demonstrated that skill or attribute. You want to show that you not only know your stuff, but you understand how and why to apply it, too. Another thing you should look at are any current developments in nursing - key reports and significant reforms. You may be asked about these directly, but even if you aren't, paying reference to current issues shows that you maintain an interest in the direction of the profession as a whole and that you keep in touch with the drives of the NHS or of the trust. This is particularly pertinent when talking about evidence based practice. At the end of the interview, you will be asked if you have any questions for the interviewer. You should ALWAYS prepare some questions to ask - this portrays interest. Never ask about salary in the interview. You may want to cover some practicalities, but cover some topics of interest besides. Good examples of questions to ask would be things such as 'What are the main issues which will be effecting the department over the coming months?'. The RCN interview skills guide (available online) has more examples. Invest in a neat, hard-backed notebook to take along to the interview and write your questions for the panel in that. Don't underestimate the importance of asking questions. I was struck with terrible nerves on the day of my interview, but I was informed as part of my feedback that preparation along with my questions at the end had really swung it for me and got me the job.
So, you have done a whole lot of preparation and the day of the interview is upon you. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to get ready without rushing and to have a last minute run through of your notes. When feeling nervous try to take some slow, steady breaths. Remember that nerves are normal in an interview situation, but you only need to hold it together for that period of time. Make sure you know where you need to be and aim to get there in plenty of time. Select an outfit which is smart and professional, but also appropriate to the area of work - for example, in a ward environment, opting for tailored trousers rather than a dress or skirt will look smart and you will also look more 'work-ready'. As with any interview, avoid showing too much skin, clothes which are ill fitting or noticeably well worn, see-through blouses or lots of jewelry. Cover any tattoos, ensure that your hair is neat and opt for natural looking make-up. Wear smart, polished but SENSIBLE shoes. You don't want to be tottering around in high heels which hurt your feet. You could be waiting around for your interview, you want to be cool and comfortable. Stand and sit up straight but be mindful to maintain a relaxed body posture as best you can. Use that 'open body language' you've been practising all these years and don't cross your arms! Bring along your ID on the day (passport/license with paper copy) and if you have it already, evidence of your NMC registration. I have never been asked for a paper copy of my CV but I think it would be wise to bring these along just in case the panel asks for more information about your education and experience. Thinking on your feet can be hard when nerves are at play - the more you can prepare before hand, the better. When entering/leaving the interview room it is appropriate manners to shake the hands of each member of the panel. This can feel quite awkward since most of us in nursing are women and it is an unfamiliar social convention, but bite the bullet and do it anyway. Be confident and make eye contact as you do it. I think the major exception to this would be if you are very familiar with the panel or assess on the day that the tone of the interview is very informal.
Lastly, GOOD LUCK!
If you you have an unsuccessful interview, remember that competition for jobs is tough and finding a job for anybody in any field at the moment is more about the 'long game'. Request feedback whenever possible and use it to tweak your approach - practice makes perfect. Reflect each time on what went well and what went not-so-well. Whilst you continue to search for jobs, take any opportunities to increase your skills and enhance your CV - you could attend short courses or access voluntary work placements. The nursing departments of most universities run guest lectures open to the public.
Above all keep trying and don't lose heart. It won't be long before somebody sees your potential and snaps you up for a position!