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In-tray exercises simulate a fast-paced office environment where you are required to make a number of judgements and decisions quickly. You’ll be presented with a fictitious workplace scenario, such as a return from a holiday or an imminent merger, and you’ll have a number of different tasks coming in at different times from different sources to juggle.

In-tray exercises take around 30 to 60 minutes to complete with 10 to 30 items of paperwork such as emails, faxes, letters, memos, minutes, reports, organisation charts, policy documents and telephone messages. You’ll have to prioritise items and act on each of them. This could include responding to queries, drafting replies, making decisions, making numerical calculations or delegating tasks. You may also be given new material during the exercise, such as having to return a phone call or schedule meetings. 

Depending on the company, your task might be to do one or a combination of the following:

  • pick your preferred action/response from a multiple choice list
  • rank a selection of possible responses/actions from ‘most effective’ to ‘least effective’
  • prioritise a ‘to do’ list, also outlining what you would act on first and explaining why
  • write an email in response to one or more of the items

However, there may not necessarily be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer - instead you’ll have to explain why you made your decisions.

What skills do in-tray exercises show?

In-tray exercises are a popular form of assessment as they are reliable predictors of job performance, and assess key competencies such as analysis, attention to detail, initiative, customer service, delegation, judgement and decision-making, time management, interpersonal skills, accuracy, problem solving, numerical analysis, organisation and written communication.

What’s the best way to approach an in-tray exercise?

Remember that you’ll be assessed not just on your ability to get things done, but also on you ability to understand whether some tasks are more important that others, and on whether you can balance working quickly and effectively. 

Before you start the exercise, it's a good idea to read through all the items in your in-tray. You might want to make notes on some of the items and you might find as you read through the information that some contradicts each other, or one item might affect an earlier one. 

You might want to sort the information into an order that makes sense to you, whether that's chronological, or topic-based, and make sure you understand which items have already been dealt with (so you no longer have to worry about them), and which items are especially urgent.

Pay close attention to the details - including the names of key personnel and the date of each document.

Keep in mind what type of job you're being assessed for, and so which particular competency you should display, as well as 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.

With each item, your options are to:

  • Take immediate or urgent action
  • Delegate it
  • Delay it or defer it
  • Drop it.

Tips for tackling the written element of an in-tray exercise

If you have to write an email as part of the exercise, you need to ensure that you can express yourself tactfully in a business context. Draft your email first and read it through carefully. Have you included everything that needs to be said? Is the information clear? You'll also need to make sure that the tome is correct for the company and receiver - For example, don’t use informal language if you are writing to a client or a senior member of the organisation. And remember to check your spelling and punctuation!

How are in-tray exercises assessed?

In-tray exercises are assessed via either your response to questions in a multiple choice format, or your performance in an interview with an assessor in which you need to explain and justify your actions and decisions. They’ll look at your ability to sort through, take in and analyse complex information under time constraints; your ability to prioritise your work depending on the scenario you’ve been given; and your ability to communicate effectively about the decisions you’ve made and to identify any special problems or issues that arise.

It’s good to understand how you are going to be assessed beforehand - this will allow you to remember to write down comments throughout, and make a note of anything that might be useful in your answer, for example diary clashes, time commitments, resource constraints or appointments.

What is the difference between in-tray and e-tray exercises?

Nowadays most companies use e-tray exercises, which are computerised and online, however in-tray exercises require you to address and prioritise a track of paper documents. You may also find that you are given a mixture of both. They both assess a similar set of competencies. 

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