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!
How to prepare for your in-tray exercise
If you’re required to attend an assessment centre as part of a job application process, you’re very likely to face some form of in-tray exercise. This is because in-tray exercises enable assessors and employers to test a wide range of your skills and aptitudes in situations that closely resemble those you might face in a real workplace: as a result, how you behave during an in-tray exercise offers a more accurate and reliable indication of your characteristics and behaviours than do more abstract methods of measurement including interviews and even psychometric tests. This is why they’re so popular with recruiters. They're also very good at seeing how you will cope with the real-world stresses of diary management and prioritisation.
Their popularity with recruiters makes it crucial that you’re aware of how in-tray exercises work and what they test. Additionally, it’s important to practice them to maximise your chances of achieving your true potential.
Most in-tray exercises are designed to test a particular set of key competencies which the employer deems to be important. For example they might focus on your delegation skills, your readiness to share problems with others, your independence, or your affinity or aversion to procedures. It is important that you think about what competencies each employer is looking for, and to emphasise these traits when answering their in-tray exercise. Each different employer may be looking for different attributes in their new recruits.
In general terms, in-tray exercises test your ability to:
- Demonstrate the level of knowledge appropriate to the job for which you're applying
- Display the skills necessary for the job
- Show that your attitudes are a good fit for those specified for the role
The exercises are therefore designed to assess what are known in the recruitment industry as KSAs – that is, your Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes. This shorthand term is often used by recruiters to clearly identify prerequisites for a job, and so to indicate what they’re testing for in the recruitment process.
Whatever the key competencies specified for the particular job you’re applying for, remember that in-tray exercises of all types always test your ability to use the time you have available for the exercise as effectively and productively as possible.
How do in-tray exercises work?
The basic idea of in-tray exercises is to place you in a realistic although simulated work situation, and to assess your workplace behaviour and attitudes in that context. So when you’re given an in-tray exercise, it’s usual to be asked to treat it as a role-play. You’ll probably be asked to imagine that you’re an employee of a fictitious company, and to work through the contents of your in-tray in that role.
You might, for instance, be told to imagine that it’s your first day in your job as a stock controller, and be handed a stack of documents and tasks to prioritise and action. You might be given this role even if you’re applying for a job that has nothing to do with stock control; similarly, you might be asked to imagine yourself as a teacher or a lawyer, even if you’re applying for a quite different job. Another common scenario is that you’ve just returned from annual leave to find a pile of correspondence in your fictional in-tray. 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.
How many in-tray items will there be?
It’s usual to be given between ten and thirty in-tray items to work on, in addition to a description of your role and responsibilities in the fictional organisation. You’ll also normally be given information about the fictional organisation’s aims, objectives and problems, as well as its structure; a list of key fellow employees; and information about key third party organisations and relationships, as well as a calendar of future events. The best candidate will keep all of these things in their mind whilst responding to the in-tray items. So there's a lot to get through in the hour or so you usually get allowed!
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.
What will my in-tray exercise be assessing me on?
Whatever the topics covered, and whatever the nature of your fictional job, all in-tray exercises assess your ability to sort through, take in and analyse complex information efficiently even under pressure of time; your ability to explore and identify key issues and prioritise your work accordingly; and your ability to communicate effectively about the decisions you’ve made and to identify any special problems or issues that arise from the set of tasks and documents you’re given. You’ll also be assessed on how clearly and effectively you can explain your decisions and actions.
So, although you’ll be asked to imagine that you’re at work when carrying out the exercise, it’s crucial not to underestimate the importance of communicating your thought processes to your assessors. As mentioned earlier, you need to show what you know in order to be given credit for your responses – so, you must be clear about the reasons behind your actions and decisions.
Remember that your attitudes are being assessed, too: because of this, 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.
Tips for performing well in your in-tray exercise
As well as keeping in mind what type of job you’re being assessed for, and so which particular competency you should display, it’s important to work in as organised and logical manner as you can.
Try to approach the exercise in an orderly manner, ensuring that you neither miss out anything nor spend too long on any one task. One great strategy is to scan through every in-tray item right at the start of the exercise, and to sort them into an order than makes sense (whether it’s chronological, or perhaps topic-based) – keeping an eye out for items that affect each other. You should be especially alert to items that have perhaps already been dealt with (so you no longer have to worry about them), and also to items that are in need of particularly urgent attention.
Despite the pressure of time, you need to play close attention to details – including the names of key personnel, the date of each document, and actions that have already been taken that might affect your decisions.
Also remember to show what you know, rather than assuming that an assessor will credit you with characteristics that you do not actually display during the exercise. So, for instance, be sure to make notes of reasons for your decisions, and to explain your thought processes either during the role-play, or in the test or interview following it.
Key to success is keeping calm as you go through the in-tray items, and being methodical in your approach to handling them. Making brief notes in relation to each decision you make is important, too – especially if an assessor asks you to explain one of your decisions, but also to ensure you don’t lose track of what you’re doing as well as how and why you’re prioritising the tasks you need to do.
One final word of advice for your in-tray exercise: be sure to take into account the personality and style of the fictional organisation you’re asked to imagine working for. Then ensure that your actions, decisions and any “work” you produce reflect your awareness. It might be that your role-play requires you to be highly independent, or, alternatively, to be very much a team player – but in either case, be sure and do your best to show your ability to “fit” with the organisation for which you’re pretending to work. This is important to employers, and is something you should consider in any recruitment situation.
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.
In-tray Exercise Tip 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!
In-tray Exercise Tip 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.
In-tray Exercise Tip 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.
In-tray Exercise Tip 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.
In-tray Exercise Tip 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?
In-tray Exercise Tip 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?
In-tray Exercise Tip 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.
In-tray Exercise Tip 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.