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How to Plan for Your Job Search

Tolstoy wrote that "spring is the time of plans and projects." Since spring also is the time of graduations, this particular quote is fitting. Every job search is a project, and every project needs a plan. Here are five areas I recommend you include in your planning.

1. Plan to focus on your studies. Being a student is like having a passport that grants you the luxury of learning simply by uttering the words "I'm a student, can I watch?" Enjoy this privilege. Expending energy applying for positions prior to graduation is not the best use of your time. Many employers won't seriously consider your application until you have a board testing date. Early applications, especially if you are applying online, may not even be recognized because you lack the required certification. Each time you apply, you create another "file" in the system. You may be sabotaging your future job applications because once you accumulate too many of these entries, the system will start to get suspicious - which in turn may cause the system to ignore all your applications.

2. Plan your references now. I have handled hundreds of reference checks and the top question I will ask your reference is whether or not they have directly observed your performance. This means that your preceptors should be first in line to tap as potential references because they have been directly observing your clinical skills for months. What they have to say about you will carry the most weight with your first employer.

Enlist at least one faculty member from your program as a reference. Employers wonder what is wrong if a new grad doesn't have at least one faculty member on his or her reference list. Skip references from friends, neighbors and peers.

Supervisor references aren't helpful for new grads either. Why? Because you aren't applying for your old job! Your old boss can attest only to your old skills. If you really feel the need to use a reference from your current or former workplace, choose an NP or PA colleague with whom you have worked rather than a supervisor.

3. Plan to put on your sales hat. Start thinking like a marketer because you will need to sell yourself and your skills. Remember, your competition for any job is experienced clinicians. You are mistaken if you think you will be able to successfully sell yourself with proclamations of your abilities to "assess and diagnose" or "manage and prescribe." Every time hiring managers read that sort of generic statement, the only thing that comes to their minds is "I should hope so." To stand out, provide concrete examples of exactly what assets you offer. To do this you need to step back and assess your skills with a more critical eye. Look at your clinical logs - the logs you complained daily about having to keep! What procedures have you mastered? Analyze the trends in types of patients and conditions seen. Use these stats to summarize your clinical experience in a meaningful description on your resume.

4. Plan NOT to live in the past. Your experience prior to NP or PA school has limited value now. It is fine to briefly mention previous healthcare-related jobs, but don't devote more than one line to an entry. State the employer, employment dates and your title. If your work history before school consisted of nonmedical positions, don't bother.

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5. Plan your answers. Specifically, plan how to answer the dreaded question "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" This is a standard interview question. Ask your instructors and preceptors for feedback. Take your clinical evaluations seriously. Most students feel confident about their strengths but get a little nervous when it comes to sharing their weaknesses. It's ok to have a weakness or two. No one expects you to be perfect. The best way to handle this question is in two parts. First, choose a clinical skill as a weakness. These are more easily remedied than character weaknesses. Admitting you don't know how to suture or need more practice at reading x-rays is far better than admitting to procrastination or poor organization. Once you have announced your weakness, provide the solution. It needn't be elaborate - maybe an additional class or workshop - but it will show your interviewer you are motivated to grow.

Renee Dahring is a family nurse practitioner who practices in correctional settings in Minnesota. She has experience as a recruiter and now conducts workshops on resume writing and interviewing ( Read more from Dahring in our Career Coach blog at

Career & Workforce Archives

Thank you so much for sharing such valuable information. I was wondering when I should begin my job search. It is hard to think about when you need to focus on upcoming clinicals, graduation, and boards. Priority of other things is of the essence at the moment.

I look forward to more useful insights from your blog.

Thank you.


Angela Howard,   MSN Student,  Walden UniversityJanuary 25, 2014
Brownsville, TN


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