Assessment Centre Guide

Chapter 3: In-tray Exercises

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Oliver Savill Updated:

A resource guide to in-tray exercises at an assessment day.

In-tray exercises and how they work

In-tray exercises are basically a pile of fictional documents, from which you must answer questions and decide on courses of action. The documents, or 'items' are deliberately unordered with important issues and irrelevant chatter nestled alongside each other. We have a free practice in-tray exercise to try on our in-tray exercise page.

Typical competencies assessed in the in-tray exercise are:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Assimilation of Information
  • Customer Focus
  • Prioritising Tasks
  • Time Management
  • Working Under Pressure

A classic example is to be told you've just returned from holiday to a full in-box and you have to meet certain imminent deadlines. Candidates are typically faced with an in-tray containing 12-20 items and a time limit of 90 minutes. The in-tray exercise is almost always done on your own.

The instructions will remind you to do this but always read through all the items before starting to respond to any of them. A classic mistake is to respond to one item only to then notice conflicting information in another document.

You will score marks simply for allocating the correct priority to something. Other marks are awarded for taking the appropriate actions. To benchmark model responses to each item, assessors usually use existing managers from the recruiting company. If your responses are similar to existing successful employees, you must be a good fit!

Pay attention to the dates of items. Supposedly medium-urgency items may now be very urgent since returning from your fictional holiday.

In-tray exercises are popular at the assessment centre because they are a good simulation of the demands of the job. They can also be easily integrated with other assessment centre exercises if based on the same fictional case study information. In one assessment centre you might find that all exercises are based around the same fictional scenario, for example a new product launch, organising a company event, or managing a new direction for the company. Sometimes, the in-tray exercise will be on an entirely new scenario.

The in-tray exercise is mainly a test of how well you prioritise information overload and how well you connect apparently unrelated items. For example one document might contain a solution for a problem which turns up later in the series of documents. A good tip for helping to order your responses is to lay out the in-tray items in chronological order, highlighting important or urgent items.

To perform well in a group exercise it helps to know what the assessor is looking for. It's worth saying straight away that they probably are not looking for someone who dominates proceedings. Many candidates at an assessment centre fall into the trap of wanting to own the conversation and speak for the longest, regardless of the quality of their contribution. This will not get you many marks. In fact you will get a lot more marks by tactfully getting these type of people to shut up for a minute and let others contribute.

In-tray Competencies List:

The competencies the in-tray exercise will be assessing at the assessment centre will be a close reflection of the role to which you are applying. Here are some typical skills which in-trays assess:

  • Recognising hierarchy of seniority. Who requires a more urgent response?
  • Do events clash with one another? Who could you send instead?
  • What tasks are acceptable to delegate, and to whom?
  • Can you link interconnecting pieces of a puzzle?
  • Do you treat customer complaints with the urgency and importance they deserve?
  • Are you creative and insightful under time pressure?
  • Do you know when it's best to meet someone in person vs. phone, vs. email?
  • Are you able to politely let people down in order to meet more important deadlines?

With every exercise in the assessment centre, try to think about what competencies the assessors are looking for. The assessors for a high-intensity trading role will be looking for a different balance of skills than those desirable for a research engineer for example. Have this in mind when undertaking the exercises at your assessment centre.

Download a free practice in-tray exercise

Download this free practice in-tray exercise to get an understanding of how they work and what you will be expected to do in your in-tray exercise. This free exercise has been designed by the same people who produce in-tray exercises for graduate assessment days, so you will be getting a valuable insight into how they work.

Print off both the exercise PDF and the answers PDF and give it a go now!

Free In-tray Exercise (PDF)

Download this free example In-tray exercise as a PDF and print it off to work through it in your own time. Click the links below to view them online individually.

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Key takeaways

Here are the key takeaways on the in-tray exercise at assessment centres:

  • The in-tray exercise evaluates time-management and prioritisation skills.
  • Candidates should read instructions carefully, plan their approach, and use a systematic method for handling each task.
  • Communication with assessors is important, and candidates should be prepared to justify their decisions.
  • The exercise is an opportunity to showcase organisational skills and attention to detail.

By following these tips, candidates can improve their performance during the in-tray exercise and demonstrate their abilities to potential employers.

Next: Presentation Exercises