tips on writing a resume for new nursing graduates

Tips on writing a resume for new nursing graduates

 Don’t miss the series

I am writing a series of blogs on the topic of making your way in the world now that you are being launched. I already wrote about cover letters for your resume. Please consider subscribing  to this blog. shar eit with your friends!

Future topics:

Some tips about asking the faculty for recommendation letters and how to enlist their aid;

My own response to the recent article on Medscape that asks whether there really is a nursing shortage; 

things you can do while you are still in school, that will help – the so-called foot-in-the-door strategy.

How to find a mentor will be part of your winning strategy – what I call assembling you personal Board of Directors. Than in and of itself, is a secret that is worth a million dollars.

To be sure to see these when they are written, go to the box on the right that says “sign me up” and click on it.

 The zen of resume writing

 To write a resume is always an assignment for the last semester of nursing school. The faculty is about to launch you like a rocket headed into outer space, and the resume is fuel for the trip.  Depending on the faculty for your senior level course, though, you may not get much feedback. Sometimes the person has not read many resumes in real life, or been a department head who interviewed any potential employees. They may not have the background to predict for you how a potential employer will react to your resume.  

 A resume is an exercise in zen, On the one hand, there is a formula for this. You need to have some dates, places, and accomplishments. But on the other hand, you also need to focus on what makes you special and what you wish to feature. If you can do that, your resume  will sing like a TV commercial. The question is, how to get to that point.

 Inventory your skills and pick your selling points

 The tendency is to write a chronology of your life. You will need to provide that sooner or later. But an important early step is to write down a list of what’s the most important, and prioritize those items. When you actually get to formatting the resume, find a way to put these first. If you can’t think of what would go here, ask the people who know you, or your mentors, how they would describe you.

 Overcome your humility

 There is something peculiar about nurses and nursing students. And especially if they were raised Catholic (like me). We are taught from  early in life that it is bad to seem like you are prideful, or to overtly bragging in some way. Take a minute and think about this. Then get over it. If you did something really good, here and now is the place to describe it – don’t bury it in the middle where somebody has to dig for it. Front and center! For example, a student of mine spent summer 2011 at a Mission Hospital in a truly remote part of Africa, where she delivered some babies, worked in the E.R., and developed skills of personal leadership while exploring some very high ideals of Christian service. She gave it exactly one line in her resume, and didn’t even follow the Outcomes Rule (below). She succeeded in a very difficult environment where more experienced nurses would have been overwhelmed. This was more than just a summer job in a USA hospital.  Say wha?

 The I word. is it really about – me?

Okay okay okay, it can be overdone – for example, go through the cover letter and see how often you use the word “I” – don’t start every single sentence that way – but usually nursing students are the last ones to fall prey to this problem. Don’t hide your light under a bushel!

 Focus on outcomes not tasks

 When I take students to clinical practice, the end of the day is occupied with writing a draft nursing note in the DAR format.  For a beginner, the usual first drafts of a note often consists of a  list of the tasks, not the assessments. For example: “dressing changed, tube feeding given, vital signs taken” etc. 

 When I read that kind of note, my response is “okay, but how did the wound look? What was the residual volume? Was there a problem with the B/P or the temp? what did you do about it?”  sometimes students take a while to ‘get it’ and start writing about nursing process others  take a little longer. When I read a note that says “wound is nine by seven cms, no undermining noted, scant amount of serous drainage noted.” Or “residual volume was less than fifteen cc, stool is soft, skin turgor normal.”  This gives a lot better info to the reader.

 The equivalent on a resume is to write:

 “2006-2011 – part- time server, Bubba Gump Shrimp co, Ala Moana Center”


 “2004 -2009 nurse’s aide, Hawaii Medical Center, SNF department”

Each of these could become much more valuable if they were reframed in the following way:

“2006-2011 – part- time server, Bubba Gump Shrimp co, Ala Moana Center. Assigned to six tables during busy dinner shift, including beverage service and daily specials, used computerized order-entry system. Received 2008 customer service award, worked 20 + hours per week to support myself during college. ”


 “2004 -2009 nurse’s aide, Hawaii Medical Center, SNF department. 50 –bed unit with average daily census of 35. Two patient populations – short term rehab after joint reconstruction and long-term post-brain injury  with severely altered mental status. Functional nursing model. Usual assignment was to share 12 patients with another aide. High emphasis on personal organization and accountability to licensed staff. Perfect attendance on rotating shift schedule.”

The key is, a well-written descriptor can guide the reader or interviewer with specific followup questions that are intriguing and beg to be asked.

 The original versions of each don’t get much of a reaction from the reader. The revised example, though, hint at skills that might also apply to a nursing setting. When a potential interviewer reads the revised examples, they are prompted to ask certain questions. “tell me more about multitasking?” “are you good with computers?” “what exactly did you do to achieve the customer service award?”  that sort of thing. The idea that they might be able to discuss this with you, makes them more likely to want to interview you as the next step. A well-written description can serve as a tease, begging for a followup from the reader or interviewer.

 Or the interviewer might followup with the second example by saying, “if I asked one of the licensed staff about what it was like to work with you, what would they say?” or “of those two groups, which was your favorite?” or maybe “how did you stay motivated every day when you knew that progress would be slow?”

 Outcomes, not tasks.

In summary, don’t simply describe what the job description was, focus on the what you accomplished. You want to portray yourself as a doer, even if all you have held were “worker bee” jobs. These sort of statements convey the idea that you have skills for accountability, dependability, and customer service.

 Final point for now

 If you have just graduated, be sure to put “(your name), BS Nursing, right at the top. When you pass NCLEX start putting RN right up there in big letters. You are applying for nursing jobs, after all, and you worked hard for that credential.

 I will continue this blogging theme  in coming days. Keep those cards and letters coming. send an email to with your question if you are too shy to add a comment. Feel free to browse this blog, and also consider buying my book about hospital care in Nepal.



Filed under nursing education, resume and cover letter, resume writing

6 responses to “tips on writing a resume for new nursing graduates

  1. Thanks again Joe, looking forward to the future articles, and I will repost this to Facebook so the others can see, it’s important.

    One thing though — Connie Gazeman went on and on repeatedly this semester about how we are NOT “BS Nursing” students, that because the SONDH is under the School of Sciences or something like that, we are just BS students. Something about how our degree doesn’t come from the SONDH but rather the higher up level and therefore we are not “BSN” but “BS,” in nursing.

    This is contrary to everything I was told before and after entering the school. Can you comment briefly to clarify?

  2. Thanks for asking.

    BS vs BSN? Either way it’s written, it conveys that you did finish the education, that you are qualified and can produce evidence of this basic credential. If the job requirement says “RN” or “graduate of nursing school” this needs to go right up there at the beginning.

    one thing to know, which you will learn later, is that ultimately there comes a point in the resume where your professional stuff is highlighted, and you devote less space to the school experience. My first nursing job, more than a year of my life, gets exactly one line on my own resume.

    For now, you do have to focus on what you have, but you will get there.

  3. Mona Kaahu

    Hey Joe! Glad to see you up and at em again….Great article.

  4. Pingback: “Getting Your Foot in the Door” for a nursing job, Part One « Honolulu 2011-2012

  5. Victor Mujuruki

    I am a RGN [zim] and I’m finding that the inf you have put up here is very helpful and just what I need to know, thanks.

    • Greetings – by the use of the initials RGN I surmise that you are not in USA – please tell us more about yourself – which country, etc – and also, feel free to share with as many people as you can. Thanks, Joe

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