Choosing the right nurse anesthesia educational program out of more than 100 accredited programs across the United States can be a daunting task, and possibly the most intimidating aspect is the interview process. If worrying about prerequisites, gathering information about each program, scheduling visits, and balancing a social life are not enough, potential students also have to prepare for an interview with the administrator of the program or a panel of professors. Because each school designs its interview process differently, it’s easy for an applicant to be under-prepared. Insight from a few program administrators spanning the United States can help a potential applicant be better prepared.
Some programs are up front about what their interview process consists of, but others let it remain a mystery. One aspect that rarely fluctuates is academic prerequisites. But is simply completing prerequisites, even at an above-average level, enough?
There is a long checklist of prerequisites an applicant needs to have completed before a program invites him or her for an interview. A GPA at or above 3.0 and a combined GRE score of around 300 are predominantly displayed in many “So You Want to Be a CRNA?” nurse anesthesia program brochures, but are these and other prerequisites all that a potential student registered nurse anesthetist (SRNA) needs to worry about? Program administrators agree, academe is increasingly important in such a competitive field, but because applicants have such similar resumes, it is illogical for an applicant to rely on grades alone. It is up to the applicant to bolster his or her resume or curriculum vitae to get a program’s attention.
Many program administrators are looking for a career-tested nurse who can transition easily into nurse anesthesia. Programs require a minimum of one year acute care nursing experience, but administrators are also looking at where the applicant gained his or her experience.
Michele E. Gold, CRNA, PhD, nurse anesthesia program administrator for the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, Calif., explains, “We want to know if they are at the best critical care setting, one that provides the best transition into nurse anesthesia school and is adult-based.”
Michael Rieker, CRNA, DNP, program administrator of the Wake Forest School of Medicine nurse anesthesia program in Winston-Salem, N.C., instills a culture of fostering leadership development and looks for leadership attributes in applicants.
“Our program is one of the oldest and longest running programs in the country, and over those years there has always been a culture of encouraging leadership development,” Rieker said. “We want our students to do something more than just provide anesthesia, such as stay on the path of leadership, embody professionalism and advocacy for the profession, and recognize their role as more than just serving patients in the hospital.”
Programs still take applicants who have experience in neonatal or pediatrics, but many would prefer applicants who have worked in an adult setting. Gold also notes that applicants who have gained experience at a medical center instead of a community hospital have an easier time adjusting to a nurse anesthesia program.
Another key attribute interviewers are looking for is passion for the nursing profession.
Thomas Obst, CRNA, PhD, program administrator at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York Nurse Anesthetist Program, looks for applicants who are highly motivated and driven to succeed, what he describes as having “fire-in-the-belly.” Obst also advises a potential applicant to simply “be an excellent nurse,” because normally people excel at what they are passionate about.
Bernadette Roche, CRNA, EdD, program administrator of the NorthShore HealthSystem School of Nurse Anesthesia in Evanston, Ill., explains, “[We look at] how active they have been professionally as a nurse. We expect advanced certifications and would like to see graduate coursework and active involvement in a professional organization and hospital committee. Volunteer activity also provides an opportunity for the applicant to demonstrate the service component of the nursing profession; it includes not only medical missions but sustained volunteer activity in local or state organizations that provide services to underserved or disenfranchised populations."
An applicant’s leadership skills are easily found on a resume, but administrators are looking for those traits to be actualized in person.
“I’m looking for intestinal fortitude!” exclaimed Scarlett Hinson, CRNA, DNP, program administrator of the Gooding Institute of Nurse Anesthesia in Panama City, Fla. “I want to see the hunger in their eyes.”
Interviewers are looking to not only get to know the applicant on a clinical level, but also on a personal one. Some programs even house separate “personal” interviews in another room. They want to know what the applicants are like out of the office. This not only shows how well-rounded a person is, but also helps the interviewer determine an applicant’s interpersonal skills.
Gold explains, “We do like to explore the person. [Applicants] have had different experiences in their lives that may have shaped [who they are].”
How Interview Formats Vary
Program administrators use specific formats to conduct their interviews, and each style presents unique benefits and challenges to an applicant. Professor Rebecca L. Madsen Gombkoto, CRNA, DNP, program administrator of the Minneapolis School of Anesthesia, prefers to interview her applicants in a one-on-one setting.
“[Each applicant] is interviewed by two people, individually,” Gombkoto said. “It is really our only way of getting to know the applicant.”
Obst also likes to interview in a one-on-one setting because he feels it gives him the best avenue to determine the “fiber of a person” as well as to “confirm what we can see in writing about the person.”
The NorthShore program follows a similar format, but instead of two interviews, each applicant has three.
“One of the things [we’re] looking for is that the applicant really knows what they are in for,” Roche explained. “We want to know how knowledgeable they are about the profession and how they have prepared to meet the demands of an intense three-year program of study.”
One-on-one interviews allow an applicant to forge a personal connection and leave a lasting impression with the interviewer.
An interview board, like the one implemented by the Gooding Institute, spotlights an applicant’s public speaking skills and brings attention to the applicant’s ability to control an audience.
“We have an admissions interview board that asks [applicants] clinical questions,” Gooding’s Program Administrator Hinson explains. “We are looking for basic knowledge [of anesthesia] and ambition.”
The Gooding Institute’s admissions interview board consists of about five people, each playing a crucial part in the admissions status of a student.
Rieker also prefers to interview with a panel. Applicants are asked clinical questions by one panel and more personal questions by another.
“We want applicants to tell us what great things they have done as people,” Rieker said. “We are looking for ambition, motivation, and an above-and-beyond personality."
Interviewing by Phone
Robert Hawkins, CRNA, DNP, PhD, program chair of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences Nurse Anesthesia Program in Bethesda, Md., really has no other choice but to conduct phone interviews because applicants are all active duty military officers.
“Our applicants are (interviewing) from all over the world because frequently they are deployed,” Hawkins said. “I’ve interviewed people while they were serving in Afghanistan.”
In the past, the applicant’s curriculum vitae was used along with the standard admissions criteria, making admissions decisions heavily based on the applicant’s curriculum vitae. Hawkins now implements an interview as well, adding tremendous value to the process.
Because steadfastness and critical thinking are required on the battlefield, Hawkins asks scenario-based questions to test the preparedness of his potential students.
“We want to verify what experience [applicants] have, and see how they think on their feet,” Hawkins stated.
Will There Be a Writing Test?
Determining an applicant’s writing skills is important to program administrators, because as professors they will be reading and correcting the work of their students. In the past, many programs relied solely on the analytical writing section of the GRE, but because all nurse anesthesia programs are required to transition from a master’s to a doctoral level by 2025, making it more writing intensive, many schools are beginning to add a writing section to the interview process.
The NorthShore program looks at the writing portion of the GRE, has an onsite writing requirement as part of its interview, and also asks for a brief essay about an applicant’s personal goals to accompany their application.
“Our program is fairly writing intensive, especially in the doctorate program,” Roche said. “It’s problematic because [we’re] trying to focus on evaluating their papers for content, but faculty are sidetracked by poor written communication skills, including organization, writing mechanics. and grammar."
Roche uses this avenue to determine not only an applicant’s communication skills, but work ethic and level of preparedness.
Rieker implements a unique version of a writing test - one that has nothing to do with nurse anesthesia or any other healthcare field.
“We have [applicants] write on something totally foreign to them,” Rieker said. “We want to see that they have good critical thinking skills and can take something and make sense of it.”
Rieker’s thought is that “good thinkers are good thinkers,” and the Wake Forest School of Medicine’s writing test is a product of that ideology.
How the Interview is Graded
Grading is an essential part of the education process – an entity that has transcended the test of time and, to a student, is probably the root of more anxiety than any other single thing. Nurse anesthesia programs all “grade” an interview, and applicant, in some capacity.
It is apparent that most interviews are a cumulative effort. Whether an interview is conducted by a board or individually, there is some discussion about each applicant among the program’s staff. Point systems and grading scales are where most programs begin their grading process; it helps to rank candidates, but it ends with the administrators sharing notes and impressions about each applicant.
Hinson uses a point system to eliminate favoritism. “A lot of people from the area were coming to this program, thinking because they knew someone in our program they would get in,” Hinson cautioned. “We kind of eliminated that [mindset]."
Rieker uses a three-tiered approach to evaluate an individual. “We call it the ‘Three H’s of Anesthesia – Head, Heart, and Hands,’” Rieker said. “In the head realm, we look for diverse degrees, advanced practice, and graduate degrees; heart, we look at [an applicant’s] personal attributes; and hands represents their clinical background.”
Program administrators specifically look for applicants who have prior links to anesthesia. Knowing or shadowing a CRNA beforehand is essential for a student and can help an administrator determine an applicant’s preparedness level. It is important for applicants to have ties to anesthesia for transitional purposes, but those connections should not be relied on for acceptance.
Words of Wisdom
It is a long journey to become an SRNA, yet the interview process in its entirety is invaluable and necessary. The field is increasingly competitive, so program administrators are left with the hard decision of determining who has what it takes to become a nurse anesthetist.
Many administrators have noted the recent lack of individuality during interviews. Because there are so many resource platforms readily available, whether it is in print or on the Web, applicants appear to be following a similar template.
“It’s really a disservice to the applicants,” Gombkoto said. “It’s turning into an exercise in futility [for the interviewer].”
With resumes being so similar, administrators depend on the interview process to make a personal connection with the applicant, so in following a similar response template it is hard for an applicant to leave a lasting impression with the interviewer. That doesn’t mean an applicant should try too hard, either.
“If I ask, ‘What journals do you read?’ I don’t want to hear ‘Oh, I read the AANA Journal,’ because then I know you’re trying too hard,” Roche said. “I don’t expect a [registered nurse] to be reading a nurse anesthesia publication, but I do expect them to be reading appropriate journals that are applicable to their current nursing practice."
Administrators aren’t looking for an applicant to be “career-ready” just yet, but instead want to know that an applicant has a willingness to learn and a good foundation on which to build.
Nurse anesthesia is a time-consuming yet incredibly rewarding profession. Because the field is so demanding, it takes a special individual to have the right combination of academics, experience, and desire to make it in the profession. CRNAs need to be at the top of their game at all times, and no matter the setting (rural, urban, or on foreign soil protecting the United States), nurse anesthetists must be prepared when lives are on the line.