Best Answers to the 11 Most Difficult Interview Questions

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AOTA Staff

Practicing in advance for an interview will help alleviate some of the stress involved with the interview process and help you to enter the room with confidence. While you do not need to memorize a word-for-word response to every potential question, it is important to be comfortable with what you might be asked and what hiring managers are looking for in your response. Who better to help you prepare than seasoned occupational therapy managers themselves? Participants of AOTA’s Leadership Development Program for Managers provide their best advice for tackling the toughest interview questions and landing your first job.

Why did you pursue a career in occupational therapy?

Best Advice: This is my favorite question to ask whenever I interview for Level II Fieldwork placements and hiring employees. My favorite answer is when someone tells me how they are pursuing occupational therapy because they feel they have a calling to help others; however I want to know the story behind that statement. Many individuals want to help others; for me, the big question is the why. I favor students and potential employees who came across the profession through life experience: had a sick family member who received occupational therapy services, spent time volunteering in the OT clinic, or had a friend or family member who is an OT. An experience where they were so inspired by that individual, and what that individual has done to change someone's life, that they decided to pursue this amazing profession.

-Maria Barefield, MS, OTR/L, Assistant Chief Occupational Therapy Service at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD

What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Best Advice: When asking this question, I look for responses that demonstrate that an interviewee has reflected on their personal goals, how their goals connect with the position, and they have a commitment to the role of OT. For example, an interviewee may consider talking about how they want to be practicing in an environment that supports professional growth, offers the opportunities for program development, and recognizes the distinct value of OT.  I look for someone who has a drive for personal growth, has reflected on what they are wanting in their first years as an OT, has set reasonable goals for themselves, and knows how their goals are in line with what the position offers. When asking this question, new grads may not know the details of where exactly they’ll want to be in 5 years, but they will likely have a sense of the type of environment and setting that will best suit their personal values and style. They describe how this position meets what they envision for themselves or how it will help them to achieve their goals.

-Sarah Jones, MOT, CLT - Rehab Manager, University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, Madison, WI

Tell me about a situation where you needed to advocate for occupational therapy. What did you say?

Best Advice: I think one of the biggest tips for this question is honesty – do not try to expand or exaggerate your experience as I know that you are new to the field. During the interview, I look for the passion behind this response and what makes the potential employee enthusiastic about how they advocated for occupational therapy versus the depth of the situation that is brought forward. Remember, there are multiple ways and forums where we advocate each day. You could share your experience during an affiliation where you spoke to the physician on the importance of a rehab referral, an experience where you had to advocate for occupational therapy to the hesitant patient, a time where you wrote a letter to your congressman, or even when you advocated for your role on a work or school committee because you felt you were qualified based on your expanding knowledge of occupational therapy and the perspective it could offer.  During the interview, tell me briefly about the situation, how you described/advocated for occupational therapy, the outcome, and what impact it had on you as a clinician. This is one of the most important questions to me during the interview as I learn about how this new employee will fit in with the team and with the mission and vision of the hospital.  

-Holly Russell, MS, OTR/L, Rehab Team Leader at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD

What interests you most about our program/facility and this position?

Best Advice: At Walter Reed, I receive a lot of student observation requests and job applicants. I always ask them, why do you want to do your fieldwork at Walter Reed or why do you want to work here? The common answer, "I want to work with wounded warriors or I want to work with veterans." We have A LOT more patients at Walter Reed who are family members of wounded warriors. So, I focus on students and potential job applicants who give me other answers than I want to work with wounded warriors. I focus on students and applicants who talk about how their strengths can help our patient population. I also want to hear that they have done some research on Walter Reed and maybe have even spent some time observing here before wanting to complete a fieldwork placement or possible position here.

-Maria Barefield, MS, OTR/L, Assistant Chief Occupational Therapy Service at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD

What do you feel are the most important qualities in being a good occupational therapist and staff member?

Best Advice: I feel the most important quality for a good OT to have is the ability to work as a team member. Most of the new therapists that I meet have a good base of knowledge when they get out of school. It is much harder to find someone who is willing to go that extra mile and work as a member of a team. It is also important that the therapist have a good work ethic. There are therapists who only do what they are asked to do and aren’t willing to give input to a special project. I don’t ask them to work late, but it would be nice to have someone show initiative.

-Marlene Snow, OTR/L, SCLV, Manager of Low Vision Services at NewView Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, OK

What contribution could you make to our team that other applicants cannot? Why should I hire you?

Best Advice: I am looking for a potential new hire to speak towards their pursuit of occupation based, evidence based practice and their ability to contribute on-going evaluation and analysis of current practices modeled within our department. I want to see that, despite being a “new grad”, the applicant has already developed a clinical identity from their fieldwork education experience and can demonstrate how they have enhanced service delivery in their previous rotations. Did they bring forward a standardized assessment and utilize it during their fieldwork? Did they implement a specific piece of adaptive equipment, or bring forward on-line resources to clients and caregivers that were new to their fieldwork educators? Did they initiate a journal club or utilize article findings to influence their service delivery with their patient populations while on fieldwork? I want to hear that they can contribute in their new professional position because they have already demonstrated these behaviors. Their ability to contribute to our team ultimately is an opportunity to contribute to the profession of occupational therapy as a whole. I am also looking for an applicant to speak to their desire to take fieldwork education students. This demonstrates an investment in professional growth and development. It shows me that they are not afraid to tackle challenges or be spurred onto best practice. 

-Becky Piazza, MS, OTR/L, Clinical Coordinator at UF Health Shands Rehabilitation Hospital, Gainesville, FL

Describe a particularly difficult challenge that you‘ve had with a client and explain how you handled it.

Best Advice: I recommend reflecting on your Level II Fieldwork placement and describing how you helped a patient understand the value of occupational therapy and achieve one of their goals. Include how you worked with the interdisciplinary team to achieve the outcome if appropriate. What were the barriers that needed to be overcome and how did you individualize the care for the patient? Demonstrate critical thinking skills and the ability to apply what you learned in school to an individual’s plan of care. I recommend speaking about a patient that you really connected with. Go into detail and be specific. I look for a connection between the therapist and their patients along with the ability to demonstrate therapeutic use of self.

-Cory Hoffman, OTR/L, RAC-CT, CAPS, VP of Operations at Solaris Rehabilitation, Coral Springs, FL

How do you cope with an overwhelming workload? How do you deal under pressure?

Best Advice: Often, the interviewer is trying to determine what methods you use to manage a hectic day and busy workload and how you cope when there are significant demands for your time. In answering this question it may be helpful to provide a specific example, perhaps an instance when you had multiple projects to complete within a specific deadline or when a colleague called in absent and you needed to cover their patient load, in addition to your own. It is important to reflect a positive approach to the additional workload, rather than focusing on how challenging the situation was. It is equally important to assure the interviewer that despite the stressful situation, you are able to remain professional and calmly work through the situation. While getting the work completed is essential, the interviewer is more interested in how you achieved it. You can tell the interviewer that you’re a list-maker, but be sure to explain why this is a helpful tool. Be sure to also demonstrate that you know how to prioritize tasks to meet deadlines. Finally, it is helpful to show that you have healthy outlets to relieve stress to maintain a good work/life balance.

-Colleen G. Johnson, OTR/L, MHCA, Director of Rehabilitation at Center for Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation, Northfield Hospital & Clinics, Northfield, MN

If you do not agree with a directive from your supervisor, how would you handle it?

Best Advice: I recommend sharing a time when this may have happened in your Level I or II Fieldwork placement and how you handled the situation. A future employer will be looking to see how you handle tough situations and what you are doing to be part of different and better solution. Also, it is key to have a positive attitude about "negative" situations. When we hire new staff, it is most important to find a positive employee that demonstrates team work. It is important to remember that you will not always agree with your supervisor or other co-workers, which is completely OK. The key is to be constructive and polite with feedback, remain positive about the situation, and demonstrate willingness to do what is best for the department/team/patient care. I challenge my employees to be a part of the decision making process, including coming up with solutions to these types of situations. 

-Emilee Johnson, OTR/L, CHT, Director of Rehabilitation Services at Maria Parham Medical Center, Henderson, NC

Is there any additional information you would like to share about your training or other professional experiences that would be helpful for me to know?

Best advice: I would be looking for the following:
  • If they have extra training, volunteer work, or exposure to patient populations that would correlate with the patient population served in the job for which they are applying for
  • If their student affiliations did not directly match the job they are applying for, I would be interested in steps they have taken to be prepared for the new experience
  • I would be interested in their thoughts on the amount and type of orientation/mentoring they think they would need if hired for the position
  • I’d also like to know what goals have they set for themselves to achieve within their first year in the profession.

-Dawn Frese, OTR, CLT-LANA, Rehabilitation Services Manager at Lakeland Health, Niles, MI

Do you have any questions for us?

Best Advice: I would recommend asking what potential mentoring or onboarding opportunities are available. This demonstrates a desire to learn and grow both as an individual and as a team member - to grow in knowledge of the company. I would also ask questions regarding what type of professional development activities are available. This can give you an idea on how much emphasis the company places on education and maintaining your credentials. Or, try asking your potential employer what they like about working for the company. This is an easy way to generate conversation, as people generally like the chance to open up and talk about their experiences. You can instantly build a positive rapport!

-Michelle McCann, OTR/L, CBIS, C/NDT, Director of Quality and Programs at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Sewickley, Pittsburgh, PA

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