Mastering the In-Tray Exercise: Essential Guide for Assessment Success

Download our Ultimate Assessment Day & Interview Guide 2022 here. (It's packed with tips, tricks and insider-secrets to help you succeed.)

This free in-tray exercise guide will tell you what to expect during an in-tray exercise and show you how to succeed, in clear detail, step-by-step.

What’s in This In-Tray Guide?

You will find the following in this comprehensive guide. So, make sure you read everything.

  • 3 essential in-tray resources to boost your chances of success
  • 1 in-tray exercise example (and links to more)
  • The 3 simple steps to in-tray exercise success
Take the In-Tray Exercise Test to improve your score.

2 Essential Resources for In-Tray Exercise Success

  1. You can try a real in-tray exercise here.
  2. You can listen to the Asessment Centre HQ’s podcast episode covering ‘in-tray success’ here.

What Is the In-Tray Exercise?

The in-tray exercise is an assessment activity that employers use to measure the candidate’s ability to handle the work expected of them. It’s a business simulation where one plays a member of staff who has to deal with the workload of a typical day.

Note that the in-tray exercise is very similar to the ‘e-tray exercise’. (The e-tray exercise is an electronic version of the in-tray exercise.)


What Does the In-Tray Exercise Measure?

The in-tray exercise measures different skills and abilities such as analytical skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, time-management skills, writing skills, delegation skills, and business acumen. The purpose of the in-tray exercise is to evaluate and test how well you:

• Efficiently use your time/resources
• Prioritize your workload
• Identify, investigate, and address key issues
• Anticipate and resolve problems
• Delegate and liaise with others

It also gives the employer a great opportunity to get an overall flavour of your work style and approach. All these things help employers to make their recruitment process effective and pick the best candidate for the entire organisation.

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How Does the In-Tray Exercise Work?

At the beginning of the exercise, you will receive background information about the imaginary work scenario to help you build a clearer picture and give you context. Often this will include:

  • All the information about your imaginary role and responsibilities (in most cases this will be similar to the role that you’ve applied for).
  • The key issues and objectives of the organisation.
  • A description or organisational chart with a list of the staff that you are responsible for and a list of colleagues and/or supporting departments.
  • A summary of third-party relationships & people or companies outside of your own (e.g customers, suppliers, distributors, etc).
  • A business calendar for the next few months.

This Sounds Terrifying!

Most people feel nervous about the in-tray exercise, but don’t worry! We’ll walk you through, step-by-step, in clear detail, so that you will be able to find the best way for you to feel confident and do well in the exercise.

Be sure to read our article ‘How To Prepare For An Interview Or Assessment Centre and also ‘How To Deal With Nerves And Anxiety’ for some expert guidance and secret techniques that genuinely work.


Can You Give Me an In-Tray Exercise Example?

Here is a sample exercise:

You have just returned to work following a two-week holiday. Your colleague who was covering for you during your absence has left a pile of work on your desk marked for your attention. It includes reports, memos, emails, presentations, telephone messages, handwritten notes from colleagues, webpages and letters.

You need to review each item and then provide the following:

  • A list of actions that includes your analysis of each of the items
  • The priority that you would assign to each item
  • The people who should be involved (colleague, department, 3rd party, other stakeholder etc)

Time limit: You have 60 minutes to complete the exercise.

PRO TIP: Thoroughly read the brief and supporting documents you are given. You need to understand them well so that you will be able to consider the entire context of the exercise. You are given enough time to think about the best approach for the work scenario. Balance working quickly and thinking carefully so that you will be able to finish within the given time frame and do well in the application process.

You can find real in-tray exercise practice tests that are timed, graded, and scored online with detailed explanations and tips by clicking here. (These tests can also be printed out for pen and paper practice sessions.)

Doing this will allow you to practice the test as it will be presented in real life, see how you will score, and learn where you need to improve and how to improve.

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Learn the Real Secrets of In-Tray Success With Our ‘In-Tray Masterclass

3 Simple Steps to Success

Step 1 – Get into the Right Mindset

Before you start working through the pile of documents, it’s vital that you have this question foremost in mind: “What are the key things this employer wants from the person doing this role?” Keep this thought in mind throughout the exercise, it will ensure that your decisions and recommendations remain relevant to the overall aim.

PRO TIP: You can get total clarity on this by asking the company’s HR or personnel department to forward you a job description for the role beforehand. (This is perfectly fair and not only will this help you enormously in your preparation but it also demonstrates initiative and drive.)

The job description will have a list of the core competencies required for the role. It’s basically a checklist of what the employer is looking for.

Step 2 – Scan and Prioritise

The first thing you need to do is to prioritise your workload. This will ensure that the most important and urgent tasks are given priority.

Grab some notepaper and a pen and draw the following matrix to create four boxes. In-Tray Exercise 1 Number each box as illustrated below: In-tray exercise 2 Go through your imaginary workload and review each item. Remember, we’re not processing or resolving these issues right now, all we’re doing is prioritising each one.

For each item:

  • Identify the issue/problem. Understand it. Consider its implications. Understand the motivation and drivers of the sender.
  • Make a note of the important details. (e.g., When is the item dated? Is there a deadline?)
  • Answer this question: ‘How important and urgent is this issue?’

Use the four boxes to assign a number to each item and ‘place’ it into the corresponding box. (If you have actual physical documents during the exercise it’s best to group them into four piles. If you’re doing this electronically then mark them 1-4 or use some notepaper. Whatever method you use, it’s important to keep track as you can quickly become overwhelmed.)

Items that you place in box 1 must be both important and urgent.

In-tray exercise 3 Items you place in box 2 are important but not urgent. These should be dealt with after you’ve resolved the contents of box 1.
fast stream in-tray exercise Items you place in box 3 are not important to your role, but they require an urgent response.

Often these items will be urgent to someone else (a colleague or another department). You should use your judgment as to which items to deal with here.  e-tray exercise Items you place in box 4 are not important and not urgent. These are basically timewasters and should be your last priority. Consider not addressing them at all. In-tray exercise 6

After prioritising the workload, you have to address each item in the following order:

civil service fast stream


Stop worrying! Download a 12-step assessment day cheatsheet & be perfectly prepared.

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Step 3: Deal With Each Item

For each item that you placed in box 1 you need to provide:

  • A list of actions that includes your analysis of each of the items.
  • The priority that you would assign to each item. [We’ve already done this of course.]
  • Include who should be involved (colleague, department, 3rd party other stakeholder etc).

While doing this consider the following:

  • In the real world, how would I deal with this?
  • What can I do to resolve this issue, now or in the future?
  • Should I delegate this or take ownership of it myself?
  • What colleagues or third parties can help me resolve this?
  • What colleagues or third parties need to be made aware of this?
  • Do I need to flag this for a follow-up?
  • Remember to write down all of your observations. Use sticky notes or post-it notes to annotate them as you go along. This is a big help when you have up to 30 documents to review. It also demonstrates your thought process to the assessors.

PRO TIP: This is when you MUST have the job description for the role at the forefront of your mind. Keep asking yourself “what does this company want from someone performing this role?” as answering that question will ensure you deal appropriately with every item.

ADDITIONAL PRO TIP: Remember what’s being measured here: analytical skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, time-management skills, writing skills, delegation skills, and business acumen. Keep these in mind as you address each item.

Follow the workflow through and repeat the above process for boxes 2,3 and 4.

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Download Your In-Tray Masterclass Now

Real In-Tray Tests

Remember you can practise real in-tray tests, as used by employers herehere, and here. Going through the above process with a real workload will show you exactly what to expect and is a must for people who want to do everything possible to have the best chance at success.

Nothing will improve your ability to perform strongly on the day more than practice. Practising improves your skill and confidence and also helps you to stay calm during the assessment.

In-Tray Exercise Podcast

You can listen to our podcast on in-tray success, a companion to this guide, by clicking here.

Some Final Questions for You…

  • Lastly the Tools and Resources page is packed with useful equipment and ‘A’ List recommendations that will make your life easier.

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Final Words

Hopefully, this guide will help you come out on top of the selection process by doing well in the exercise. If you have suggestions or requests about tests or assessments you want us to cover, let us know.

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