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acute care OT interview

How to Ace Your Acute Care OT Interview

I was lucky enough to interview Lauren Sheehan, OTD, OTR/L, a former acute care hiring manager in Seattle, Washington. She shared tons of great information about how to ace your acute care OT interview. Here’s a bit about her:

acute care OT interviewI knew from a young age that I wanted to do something in healthcare. I have an early memory of fixing up my stuffed animals with a little Fisher Price first aid kit. As I started looking for schools, during a college visit, I heard an OT program director talk about his work with patients who had serious burns. He discussed how he would create splints to help them resume the activities that made their lives meaningful. Hearing that, I immediately knew that OT was right for me! It has been a perfect blend of creativity, meaningful activity, brain science, psychology, and biomechanics to help patients reach their goals and resume their roles.

I got into management a little by accident, actually. I thought that someday I would have interest in a management position; however, an opportunity came up earlier than I had anticipated. I had just moved to Seattle, Washington from the Midwest and started working at a post-acute rehab facility. Two months into my time there as a staff OT, the Director of Rehab position opened up. I wasn’t sure that I was ready, but it was a great opportunity to step into leadership with a wonderful group of therapists. I was there for a few years as DOR before moving on to a supervisory role in a large 500+ bed urban hospital in Seattle.

Without further ado, here’s how to ace your acute care OT interview!

Why do you like to hire new grad OTs?

New grads bring fresh perspective and knowledge that can be really energizing for existing teams. They have often been in a variety of settings and bring knowledge about different practice areas, as well as best practice as they’ve experienced it elsewhere. New OT graduates whom I have brought on have been closer to the new assessment tools and evidence, which can propel more seasoned therapists toward adopting more evidence-based practice.

The new OT graduates whom I have hired over the years are also hungry for leadership opportunities, and have started new initiatives such as an online journal club, assisting with documentation changes, and the adoption and training of new standardized assessments.

My hesitation in hiring new grads is twofold: lack of experience and (sometimes) lack of understanding regarding hospital systems. Unfortunately, as a manager, I also have to consider efficiency as budgets are often tight.

It is always helpful if Fieldwork sites have prepared students to be efficient, as well as productive. It also helps if new grads know what their previous productivity was when they were students. This is sometimes unfortunate, but necessary, as businesses need to make budgets to retain and hire more staff and be able to manage other budgetary needs, such as new equipment.

What sticks out on a resume that compels you to bring an OT in for an interview?

I like to see concise, yet descriptive, information about where a prospective candidate has spent time in Fieldwork, as well as any volunteer hours the applicant has accrued and any and outside clubs and organizations to which the applicant belongs.  Perhaps more importantly, I like to see how applicants made an impact in those settings (implementing changes, etc), as well as skills they obtained.

I have met many OT graduates who decide that they want to work in an acute care setting for their first job, in order to gather a broad base of experience before moving into a more specialized area. Many of these grads have not had a Fieldwork experience in the area in which they are applying.

Typically, these are not candidates whom I would bring in for an interview, unless there is something that they have done to gather equivalent experience, such as working as a rehab aide or CNA in that setting previously, seeking additional Fieldwork exposure (extra time or rotations), or obtaining volunteer hours to supplement their traditional Fieldwork experience.

I also like to see some outside experience, either volunteer or work experience, clubs or organizations that have a service component so I know that they’ve worked extensively with people in a position of being of service.

Healthcare is all about serving those who need our expertise, and I have found that those with that background and previous experience are most successful in relating to patients.

Also, previous leadership experience, whether someone was an officer in a club or started something new, shows me the type of initiative they will likely have in the workplace. I like to hire new OTs who are hungry for mentorship, as well as leadership. This tells me we can inspire them, as well as learn from them.

What about cover letters?

If a resume is well-written and speaks to what the individual has done, as well as skills they possess, I don’t find that cover letters are necessary. In fact, they can be redundant.

Unless there is a special story that a prospective candidate wants to share with me that can’t be communicated in a resume, I don’t think that they bring much more to the picture. For example, there was an applicant who had a child at our hospital and had such a great experience with the nursing and hospital staff that she wanted to be a part of our organization once she became an OT.

In her case, I thought that the personalized story was a nice touch and additional evidence that we had a special way of taking care of patients that she was moved to be a part of.

Editor’s note: At NGOT and CovalentCareers.com, we generally advise for the use of cover letters, especially when you apply to larger hospital systems. Cover letters are a great way to show you’ve done your homework to learn about an organization, plus they’re a way to set yourself apart as an applicant. Cover letters also afford the opportunity to use keywords you pull directly from a job description, making it more likely that your application will be picked up by a computerized method of scanning job applications.

Do you prefer applicants with relevant Fieldworks?

Absolutely! If you have an idea of an area in which you want to start your practice, do what you can to get relevant experience in your Fieldwork. If you’re in a larger system that will allow you to spend some time in acute care, for example, even if you can’t be mentored there, the initiative is important to demonstrate.

Often, because our market is fairly saturated with graduating OTs, graduates with recent relevant experience in the area of practice will get preference for interview call-backs over those who don’t have the experience or background.

When should an OT ask about benefits, pay, etc?

The salary is often something that our HR will discuss with a candidate in a screening interview that they facilitate. This may be unique to my particular facility, but in our case, HR provides a salary range based on experience early in the interview process. The candidate can have the opportunity to explain how he or she stands out, based on exceptional work experiences, past leadership roles, etc.

At NGOT and CovalentCareers.com, it is generally considered wise to wait until you have an offer to negotiate salary. If you are asked what your salary expectations are, have a ballpark figure that you have researched, based on your setting, experience level, and location.

For difficult-to-fill positions, there may be more wiggle room on salary negotiations and sign-on type bonuses, but new graduates shouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t much wiggle room on salary in a saturated market or in larger hospital systems.

Know about what to expect in terms of pay and benefits based on region and type of setting by doing some research on websites like Glassdoor.

Does the OT school an applicant attended affect your decision?

I’m not as concerned about where a candidate went to OT school as I am about what they did when they were there. I like to hear about their experience in extracurricular activities, OT and non-OT related, from their time in graduate school.

Do you ask new grad clinical simulation questions in interviews, such as precautions, critical lab values, or ethical situations?

Yes, I do ask clinical questions. My primary motivation in asking applicants questions regarding clinical experiences is to understand how they problem solve or navigate to important information, not whether they can recite something like a critical lab value.

One thing I’ll commonly ask in an interview is the following: Describe a patient who wasn’t motivated to work with you in therapy and how you encouraged their participation. The answer to this question tells me a lot, first of all, how they use themselves therapeutically in practice is important.

I like to hear about something that they found out about a patient to get them motivated, such as a relevant goal, occupation, or family member who got involved. It also tells me what tools the applicant has for assisting with participation and motivation, as these can be challenges in an acute care setting when patients are not feeling well and can be prone to refuse therapy.

I also like to ask about how the candidate sees themselves in relation to a team. Perhaps asking them to describe a time they didn’t get along with a team member either in a school or workplace setting as well as what they value on a team.

This tells me about how they operate in terms of teamwork, conflict resolution, expressing their needs and other important workplace behaviors.

What sort of questions should a new grad ask YOU during an acute care OT interview?

DO come prepared with questions; it shows that you are invested, have done some research, and are interviewing your employer as much as they’re interviewing you. Candidates who ask thoughtful questions, even if they think they know the answers, really set themselves apart in the interviewing process.

Also, if you’ve put in an application, in my experience, it doesn’t hurt to call the hiring manager if you haven’t heard anything in a few weeks after applying. By reaching out, it shows that you are interested and motivated. Plus, being proactive may afford you the opportunity to bend the ear of the manager to ask a few key questions which might prompt them to bring you in for an interview.

  • What does a typical day in this setting look like?
  • What are the productivity requirements in this setting and how long will I have as a new graduate/employee to reach that standard?  What happens if I am having difficulty meeting the standard?
  • What does your onboarding or training process look like? Does this differ for a new grad?
  • Do you offer formal mentoring or opportunities to check in with another member of the team for feedback, to ask questions, etc.? At what frequency is this offered (weekly? Monthly?) and for how long (1 hour once a week initially for a few months and then more rarely?)?
  • What are the attributes of a therapist that is successful in this setting? (IMPORTANT NOTE: If what is described here doesn’t sound like you, it’s probably a good idea to question the fit of the setting to your style.  For example, if you’re applying for an acute care position and the hiring manager tells you that those that are most successful are self-directed and able to manage their time independently but you like to have more direction in your day-to-day work, you may consider looking elsewhere.)
  • What opportunities are there for leadership and growth in the department?
  • What important initiatives are you working on currently in the hospital/department? (This tells you about what the hospital, department and manager value, what they may have gotten feedback on from accrediting agencies, for example, and items you may have an opportunity for involvement in such as fall prevention, new equipment purchasing, development of a new system or training staff on a specific technique).
  • How is rehabilitation viewed in this setting and how do you interface with members of different departments?  (IMPORTANT NOTE: This tells you what hurdles you might encounter, who does what in each setting as sometimes the distribution of duties can differ and how rehabilitation is viewed or supported.)
  • How does the department support continuing education?  Are there in-house CE’s offered, is there a budget for staff to participate in outside CEs?
  • Is there a clinical ladder program or some incentive for creating new initiatives, getting additional certifications or growing programs? 
Here are more questions to ask during your acute care OT interview. And remember, NewGadOccupationalTherapy is here to help advance your career development. Be sure to follow us on your favorite social media platform and sign up on the website so you don’t miss the latest resume, interview, and job hunting advice specifically for new grad OTs! 😄 

About Dominic Lloyd-Randolfi

Dominic Lloyd-Randolfi
Dominic Lloyd-Randolfi is the Publication Director of NewGradOccupationalTherapy.com. He recently graduated from MGH Institute of Health Professions with his doctorate in occupational therapy and works as an acute care OT.

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