Try an example in-tray exercise to help prepare for your assessment centre.
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What is an in-tray exercise and how do they work?
An in-tray exercise is a type of assessment tool used by employers to evaluate a candidate's suitability for a particular job role. The exercise is typically designed to simulate a work scenario in which you are given a set of documents, emails, memos, and other types of correspondence that you would likely encounter in the job. It is then your task to prioritise and respond to each item within the time limit.
The purpose of the in-tray exercise is to assess the candidate's ability to manage multiple tasks, prioritise effectively, and make decisions under pressure. It also provides insight into their communication skills, attention to detail, and organisational ability.
During the exercise, you may be given additional information, such as phone calls or urgent requests, which they must also manage within the given time frame. The exercise may be timed, and the candidate's responses and decisions will be evaluated by the employer.
Overall, an in-tray exercise provides a practical way for employers to assess a candidate's skills and suitability for a job role, providing valuable insights that can be used in the hiring decision-making process.
The point is that the skills and attitudes being assessed will be relevant to the job you’re applying for; the types of issues and problems you’re asked to consider will be similar to those involved in that role.
What will my in-tray exercise be assessing me on?
During an in-tray exercise, you will be presented with a variety of tasks and documents that you will need to sort through and prioritise based on their importance and urgency. This will require you to analyse complex information efficiently, identify key issues, and make decisions quickly and effectively.
In addition to these analytical skills, if your in-tray is in-person at an assessment centre, you will also be assessed on your ability to communicate effectively with others. This means being able to explain your decisions and actions clearly and concisely, as well as identifying any problems or issues that arise from the set of tasks and documents you're given.
Overall, an in-tray exercise will assess you on your ability to manage multiple tasks and priorities, make effective decisions under pressure, and communicate your thought processes and decisions clearly and effectively to others. By demonstrating your skills in these areas, you can show employers that you have what it takes to succeed in a range of different job roles.
If at an assessment centre, remember that your attitudes are being assessed too. Pay attention to how you present yourself during the exercise – including how you organise your desk area, how neat your notes are, and whether you display a frantic or rather calmer approach to dealing with the in-tray items!
Be aware that many in-tray exercises have a central “theme” to them that you’re expected to identify: this might be the fact that a merger or takeover of your fictional organisation is imminent, or perhaps that a major re-structuring is on the cards. It’s important to identify anything like this because it will enhance your understanding of your fictional role, and affect the way in which you evaluate and prioritise tasks and information, as well as influence your decisions.
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 for practise
Free in-tray exercise (PDF)Free
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.
Start E-Tray Exercise 1Premium
- 10 Emails
- 60 mins
Start E-Tray Exercise 2Premium
Start In-Tray Exercise 1Premium
Start In-Tray Exercise 2Premium
Our eight essential in-tray exercise tips for success 🙌
When you take your in-tray exercise, remember our handy hints for getting the best scores. There are several tactics for performing well in your in-tray exercise but the most important thing to do is to take an example exercise yourself. Below we have listed our best tips for your next in-tray exercise.
1. Write down ALL of your observations
Assessors can award you marks only for the observations you write down or those which you explain to them. A common mistake candidates make is to not write down that they have deliberately left an item to come back to later, only to find they have run out of time. Quite correctly, candidates will deal with the more urgent and important items first but if they don't make it clear why something has been left the assessor can only assume you didn't know what to do with it!
2. Think about the proximity of your in-tray appointments
In your in-tray will be lots of items requiring your attendance, such as meetings, conferences, awards ceremonies and social events. Part of being a good organiser and planner is to take note of the locations of these various engagements and their time to decide if it's possible to go to more than one. For example two events either side of lunch might be at opposite ends of the country and so in your answers you should not agree to attending both. Similarly, two events might be in the same building and so you would be expected to notice this and respond accordingly.
3. Note the significance of the originator/receiver of communication
Some of the correspondence in your in-tray might be from the managing director of your organisation, some might be from a client, some might be a cold-calling sales representative. Do you give the same level of priority to all of these? Of course not, so always have in your mind who is who and from where the correspondence originated. This is a common way for in-tray exercises to test your prioritisation skills.
4. Pay attention to the date you received correspondence in your in-tray
Your in-tray exercise will include correspondence from different times and dates. Has an urgent request been sitting in the in-tray for some time thus meaning it is now very urgent? When someone refers to for example "by the end of next week", you need to notice the date of sending for this to have significance. Read through all your in-tray items before attempting your first question because you might well find that a later piece of correspondence contradicts or negates earlier messages. Decide if each piece of correspondence warrants an urgent response or if it can wait.
5. Imagine yourself actually faced with your in-tray items in real life
Your in-tray exercise is as much a test of role-play than of your attitudes because you have to treat the exercise like it is real if you want to perform your best. In a simulated environment it's easy to slip into the trap of sticking to rigid responses, or answering how you think you should answer. When in fact if you had faced a similar situation in real life you would have taken a more realistic practical approach. An example to illustrate this point is coming across a broken bridge over a river. In a test situation you might think along the lines of constructing a new crossing from branches, or fixing the broken bridge with rope etc. But in reality aren't you more likely to just get out your iPhone and use Google Maps to see if there is another bridge nearby?
6. Think carefully about delegation during your in-tray exercise
Another skill your in-tray exercise will be assessing is your ability to effectively delegate, in the right situation to the right person. The extent to which you should delegate tasks depends on what your fictional role is within the fictional organisation. For a manager you would be expected to delegate all but the most strategic tasks, whereas a new recruit would be expected to carry out most of the tasks themselves and get it checked by someone more senior. You will be marked down if you do not delegate enough, but equally if you delegate too much. You should consider if the task is suitable for your fictional role, and if not consider delegating it. Consider also if an event requires you to be there in person or if you can delegate it out. You might first think it appropriate to delegate a more menial task, but is there another reason you should be there in person?
7. The most important piece of advice is to practise an example in-tray exercise
You can read about in-tray exercises but the most effective way to actually improve your performance is to take an example exercise yourself. By sitting one for yourself and going through the thought process you will become familiar with what to look out for, and how to deal with each item in your in-tray.
8. Lay out your in-tray items in a logical sequence
If you are taking your in-tray exercise at an assessment centre, you will usually take it alone in a room with a desk. Read through all the in-tray items once and as you do place them on the desk in a logical order. This will help when you come back to them and answer questions on them. For example lay them out left to right in the order you read them, placing urgent items higher than less urgent items. You might find a different method works best for you. Apart from being a help to you, if an assessor sees the neat arrangement of items on your desk, they may be impressed with your methodical and logical strategy.
- How many in-tray items will there be?
How will my in-tray exercise be assessed?
The two most common ways in which your response to the in-tray items will be assessed are via (a) your response to questions in a multiple choice format, or (b) your performance in an interview with an assessor in which you need to explain and justify your actions and decisions. Sometimes, you will be assessed via a combination of these methods. Before you start, you should be sure to check how you’ll be assessed, and whether or not you’re allowed to write on your in-tray items. If you know you will not have the opportunity to talk through your answers with an assessor at the end, make sure you write down everything you have thought of otherwise you won't get the marks for it. Make a note of diary clashes, time commitments, resource constraints, appointments, interactivity between people...anything you think is important to consider in your answer. Online or computer-based in-tray exercises are referred to as an e-tray or inbox exercise. The same principles apply but they are becoming more common because in the real world most of the information employees deal with arrives by email so this is a realistic simulation of the demands of the role.
What's the best way to approach an in-tray exercise?
Remember that it’s crucial that you identify the key issues arising from the in-tray items: while you should aim to complete every task in the limited time allotted, do not lose sight of prioritising more important tasks. You’ll be assessed, after all, not simply on your ability to get things done quickly, but on your ability to spot whether some tasks are more urgent than others, and on the balance you strike between working quickly and working effectively. The best approach is to quickly read through every item in your in-tray before answering any questions. But do make notes on your thoughts as you read through each item. It's best to wait until you have read everything before responding because an item which comes up might affect how you react to an earlier item, or even contradict it. The assessor will not look favourably on you just ploughing in to the questions.