Introduction to the In-Tray Exercise

If your assessment centre involves an in-tray exercise then you will usually be asked to assume a particular role as an employee of a fictitious organisation and to work through a pile of correspondence in your in-tray. The in-tray exercise items will be specifically designed to measure job skills such as: ability to organize and prioritize work; analytical skills; communication with team members and customers; written communication skills; and delegation.

Assessment Centre In tray Exercises

The in-tray exercise is a major component of most assessment centres, not only because of the variety of skills, knowledge and attitudes that can be tested but because this exercise also has considerable ‘face validity’. This means that candidates can see how it relates to the job they are applying for and therefore they tend to take it seriously.

It is vital that you practice this exercise to improve your chances of achieving a maximum score. With practice, you can learn to see which specific in-tray items are testing which of your skills and learn how best to respond to the problems and issues they raise.

Remember, if you have not practiced an in-tray exercise before it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of material you are presented with and expected to work through in the time available. At the very least you should practice working through items and classifying them according to their urgency and importance. You will invariably find that there are one or two ‘major issues’ hidden among the in-tray items and if you miss these you will struggle to remain a credible candidate.

Many people find the in-tray to be the most difficult of all of the assessment centre exercises. Your brief may be something totally unexpected like being told that it is the first day of your new job as deputy head-teacher and given a list of thirty tasks and memos to prioritize and action. You may be given this type of scenario even if you are applying for a job that has nothing to do with education.

Assement Center Exercise

Don’t make the mistake of worrying about the topic. You will be judged on how well you can handle complex information, determine priorities, make decisions within time limits, display sensitivity to potential problems and communicate clearly. Try to imagine that you are at work doing the described duties, rather than just completing an exercise, but make sure that the reasons for your actions are clear and documented.

The type of issues you will be asked to review and action will reflect the ‘nature’ of the role you have applied for. This does not necessarily mean that the scenario will be based on your industry or sector, but it does mean that if you are applying for a strategic role then it is likely that you can expect a significant number of your in-tray items will be designed to test your strategic decision making; whereas if you are hoping for a management role, the in-tray items are more likely to raise issues about team building, coaching, motivation and other management issues.

In-tray exercises can take a variety of formats and the two most popular are :

  1. You are given between 12-24 in-tray items which you have to prioritise and action. This is done by answering a series of multiple choice questions (usually 15-30).
  2. You are given between 12-24 in-tray items which you have to prioritise and action. This is followed by an interview with an assessor in which you are expected to justify your decisions.

For the majority of in-tray exercises you will be given the following information and told that it has all taken place in the same calendar year.

  • Details of your role and responsibilities.
  • Key issues and objectives of the organisation.
  • An organisational chart or description.
  • A list of the staff that report to you (where applicable)
  • A list of key employees that you may need to interact with during the exercise.
  • Third party relationships and activities.
  • A calendar of the next two to three months.


You should check whether you can write on, or jot notes on, the in-tray items themselves. If you can, then make full use of this option. Be mindful to be consistent in where you write your notes so that you can easily review them i.e. always in bottom right-hand corner. Remember that everything you do must maximise and efficiently use the time you have available.

From the data you are supplied with you will be able to extract the necessary information which will form the basis of your decision making during the exercise. During your preparation for the in-tray exercise it is important keep in mind the Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes your assessors will be looking for you to exhibit.

If you are applying for a top level management or strategic role, you will find that the in-tray exercise is longer and has a greater intensity contained within its items than those on line management grades. You will frequently find that you are required to produce written responses to items. As the intensity of the exercises increases the likelihood of being able to complete the whole exercise in the allocated time diminishes. It is how you respond to the major issues that matters, more than being able to complete the whole exercise but the latter should always be your goal.

For some candidates their in-tray exercise could be up to three hours in length. This is frequently done in two or three sections which are fitted around the other exercises you will undertake during the assessment centre. You can rest assured that all candidates will have the same experience, so that you can all be scored fairly.

During the in-tray exercise you must work in a way that maximises the score you can achieve. Some items will be far more important than others and the assessors are looking to see how you deal with these items and how it fits in with the ethos and values of the organisation.

To avoid missing these important items, the best approach is to work quickly through all of the items and determine the urgency and importance of each one. You can then use the 80/20 rule to apportion your time between the items.

This means that you will use 80% of the time available to work on the most important items and then 20% on the less significant and mundane items. Always keep in your mind how much time you have in the scenario to deal with each item.

There are several things you can take into the assessment centre that will make the task of sorting through in-tray exercise items easier and faster. You should always take:

You could for example, mark items which are urgent and important with a particular colour which will save time when sorting through them. You will need to develop your own system for classifying items which is something that you can do using the practice tests. This will take time and effort to do but it will save you time in the actual exercise and you can spend that time very profitably making more considered decisions.

It is important to make your decision from the information provided. You should not make any assumptions, or try to read more into it, than is actually supplied for each exercise. Assessor’s will want to see how well you evaluate the information supplied and the appropriateness of your decision based on the scenario.

Before you begin the in-tray exercise you will be handed several items which are number or lettered for easy reference, these will provide you with all of the information you need to complete the exercise. Do not make any assumptions and only use the information provided to arrive at your decisions. If you know that you are going to be given the opportunity to justify your answers, then you may be able to take a few more risks in the decision making process. However, if you are not going to be given the opportunity to justify your decisions then you should choose the most obviously ‘correct’ answer.

Be wary of falling into the trap of making a decision or selecting an answer that you would normally want more detailed information about before making. If it is appropriate for the nature of the question – your answer could be ‘None of the above’ or, ‘I’d want to delay my decision until I had more information.’

The in-tray exercise addresses an issue facing all levels of management, that of information overload and provides a good indicator of how well you can cope with it. By using a fictional scenario the exercise quickly measures your ability to draw out key information and act on it appropriately. It assesses how you use information contained in one item to add substance to another item, how you circulate this amongst your colleagues and what timescales you wish to set.

Many in-tray exercise will provide you with a diary sheet and calendar. These are valuable assets to have and if none are provided then make sure you create your own. This does not have to be very elaborate, a simple grid will be sufficient. You only need to be able to see the days of the week and mark in significant appointments and actions. In this way you can easily see any double bookings you have as a result of the change outlined in the overview.

You can also use these sheets to show how you’d request essential reports needed for a meeting, monitor certain actions, or delegated tasks. In this way you provide the assessors and yourself with a written record of how you have approached the exercise. This is particularly useful to refer to if you have a face-to-face meeting with the assessors following the exercise as it is very easy to forget why you made certain decisions.

When you are working through the items in an in-tray exercise always try to be as logical and systematic as possible in the way that you work. The information may be presented in a haphazard way, but you don’t want to be seen to work in a haphazard way. Be mindful of how your desk or working area looks during and at the end of the exercise. Always try to present an organised appearance and try and avoid looking as if you are in chaos. Using post-it notes to identify items and clearly annotating items will greatly enhance your efficiency and help you to keep things under control.

Firstly, you should scan through each of the in-tray exercise items quickly and sort them into chronological order. At the same time, look out for items which are interdependent or items which make a previous item redundant. This is an important step as you don’t want to waste time with items which have been superseded and which don’t need to be auctioned. Also, you may think you have quickly solved one problem only to find that a memo sent three days later has added a further complication which makes your original decision unworkable or impractical.

For example, you may want to put his items into three piles using a post-it to identify each one – Urgent, Important & Routine. For each of these piles you may then segregate them further by who is to deal with them – Myself, Delegate (Name) & File, or it could be based on a time frame – Next Hour, Today, Tomorrow & Later. If you are using a time frame as a method of prioritising then you may wish to use the calendar provided or create your own to make notes on so that you can easily see and overview of the situation.

Use your highlighter to identify key information you have been given:

  • Who you are,
  • Your function,
  • Type of organisation (government, industrial or non-profit),
  • Recipient & how they relate to you,
  • Date on the item in relation to ‘today’s’
  • Dates of meetings & deadlines.

Sometimes details contained in your role overview may consciously try to limit your ability to respond so that they can assess how you deal with such a situation. If your response to an item is to delegate a task to one of your staff, the assessment centre assessors will want to observe how you perform this and how well it matches the organisations expectations. Do you provide a clear brief of the task requirements, details of the desired outcomes and a deadline. The assessors will also want to see how you would monitor progress. This could take the form of a note in your diary or planner.

An in-tray exercise item may say that you or your boss are un-contactable for a week. This infers that you, or your boss are unable to make or receive calls, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t call in or contact them either by phone, text, fax or email. You will need to carefully read the brief and make sure of exact meanings. Don’t be put off by minor diversions created in the brief.

Other items can be used to assess your attention to detail. For example, do you make a connection to an individual in the organisation who is known to everyone by a nickname, or who has recently changed their name following a divorce, or marriage? As you read through each of the in-tray items you must always be mindful of the minor details it contains and check that they are accurate. You must check that names are spelt correctly and that dates used are real e.g. 30 February, 31 November.

If you are asked to assess some financial information make sure that all details you’d need to respond are detailed on your in-tray item. For example, you may be asked to solve a problem with an invoice, but the date of the order and/or the order number are missing; which makes your job difficult. You would need to ensure that the invoice you had in your in-tray was actually the one that created the problem.

Watch out for bulk filler! These are attachments, brochures and reports that are included within an in-tray item, but do not really add further information or clarity to the issue raised. You will not have enough time to review such things within the exercise framework, so don’t let yourself be sidetracked by them. Remember - The assessors may be testing how easily diverted you are from important issues, so don’t fall into their trap.

Be mindful that some attachments may be the issue of the in-tray item so should not be ignored. When you are justifying your actions remember it is vital that you explain everything, even if it seems trivial to you because you do it all the time, if you don’t say you do it, how can an assessor add to your score. Remember – Your Assessor has to see or hear something in order to score it!

Also make sure that the tone of any communication is compatible with the ethos of the organisation. The item itself may be insignificant or unimportant, but the tone of the item may need to be addressed. You must also be able to show that you are understanding and empathetic with others. If you come across as totally focused on getting the job done it may be detrimental. Remember - View your actions in the context of the role you are performing in this in-tray exercise.

If you have followed our advice of dealing with the most important (to the job specification) and urgent items first, then these remaining items will not be critical. You should try to have an action for each item. When you walk away from the test area make sure that your desk looks tidy and organised as this will also send a message about your approach to the assessors. 

The  in-tray exercise is frequently used to assess your ability to prioritise, evaluate and organise your time effectively. It is also a key way in which organisations will assess your problem solving abilities and how well your decision making skills match their needs. You are being assessed on how you deal with the items and it is very unlikely you will be asked to compose emails, letters or memos as part of this exercise.

Your assessors will score you on the following:

  • How well you identify the ‘Key’ issue of the item.
  • Your interpretation of the information provided.
  • Ease and speed with which you arrive at your decision.
  • The way in which you evaluate the information.
  • How effective your actions/decisions are in dealing with the presented problem.


The assessors will be identifying how well you manage your own time and whether or not you spend your time on key issues that have a significant impact on the organisation or become distracted with urgent, yet trivial items. You will be judged on how well you prioritise the in-tray exercise items, your willingness and appropriateness to delegate and whether or not you set a deadline for the activity.

Sticking to the point is vital especially during your justification as it is easy to get side-tracked and run out of time. You need to address all the major issues raised in order to achieve your objective of maximising your score.

An in-tray exercise may also be assessing your skills and knowledge in respect of commercial insight, your use of creativity in problem resolution and decision making. Of course it will be scoring you on the way you display your management style

  • Supervisory
  • Mentor
  • Delegator
  • Customer orientated
  • Organisationally orientated
  • People orientated


Frequently there is a central theme to the in-tray exercise items. This could be an impending take over, potential merger, management buy-out, re-organisation with redundancies or poor financial performance. Whilst you are reading through the overview and the items provided be mindful for this re-occurring theme. You will not be expected to have specific market or product knowledge, although being up-to-date on current industry issues may be useful it’s important to focus on how you deal with issues, how you manage the information and what actions you subsequently take, as this is what you will be scored on.

During the justification they will want to see your reasoning behind these decisions and actions and you scored on how well you make the specification. If the in-tray exercise does not have this aspect then make sure your notes are readable (if you need to print in capitals) by anyone so they can see the thread of your reasoning.

Any organisation will also want to assess how well your ethos matches their own. They will score you on the way you use, and the importance you place on, the company goals and objectives in your decision making process. Your assessors will want to see how you gauge the impact on the organisation of your decision, or action, and also the implications this could have on resources and other projects. They will be looking to see what your initial planning stages consist of and how you will monitor and measure its success.

Some assessors will also judge what you do with an item once read (file/circulate/copy/discard/shred) as part of your overall score. You will be able to judge the importance of this aspect of your in-tray exercise depending on the nature of the organisation.

As the average number of multiple choice questions is slightly higher than those asked during a justification or discussion, you must be concise and decisive in your answers as you’ll only have about 5 minutes per question if you are asked a dozen during an hour.

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