In-tray Exercise

In most in-tray exercise  you will be provided with an overview of an organisation and your role within it. Some assessment centre include the reading of these items and all overview details as part of the allocated time for reading through the documents included in the exercise, whilst others give you 5-10 minutes to read the overview before presenting you with the in-tray items. The time allocated will vary depending on the particular exercise but it is usually somewhere between 20-60 minutes.

When you have worked through the in-tray items you will then be given a series of multiple choice questions and an answer sheet. For more senior positions the two parts are often followed by a third section which provides you with an opportunity to explain your chosen answers to the assessors face-to-face.

The in-tray exercises or in-basket exercise is designed so that anyone can undertake the exercise and have equal opportunity to produce maximum marks. You do not need to have specialised knowledge of the market sector or industry as all the information required to make a decision and select one of the multiple choice answers is provided in the overview documentation. Many of the tests in the instructions will tell you to use only the information provided in the exercise.

The most important aspect of the in-tray exercise is to ensure you have fully understood the role you are playing and the objectives of the organisation. Secondly, it is vital that you pay attention to the small details as the authors of the exercise have often included incorrect dates for meetings, old correspondence, missed spelt names and created double bookings to test this skill. It is these small details which are influential in why you select certain options in the answers and are often during test exercises to show you why a certain answer reflects poorly on your skills and lack of attention to detail. It is these small details which are useful to bring out in a discussion or justification if this is part of your in-tray exercise.

This type of exercise provides all the information they require you to evaluate and use when making your decision. Beware of bringing in additional information from your own experience as this may cause you to over complicate the issue being presented in the in-tray item or document. For example, the items show that you have problems with a member of staff, when a questions ask about the individual be wary of trying to solve this problem.

The question may be asking how you would prioritise the urgency of addressing this issue compared with others raised during the exercise. It could also be asking whether or not you would deal with it personally.

Different questions will test your ability, in terms of:

  • Clear decision making
  • Man-management
  • Focus on results
  • Generate good working relationships
  • Prioritisation
  • Organisational importance
  • Evaluate information
  • Project management
  • Create motivated teams


The exercise is looking at how effectively you can evaluate information, priorities any required actions and decide on a final outcome, it is not looking for a solution. It is also assessing how well you work under pressure and with minimal information.

Most in-tray exercises will have at least 12 items, but for more senior jobs this can increase to 30 or more. It is important not to sift through these items and discard ones you feel are unnecessary, because many short or inconsequential items are put in to create double bookings which you would otherwise miss.

When reading through the items it is important to highlight or clearly mark the important information each item contains. If you find that you have been unable to read all the items or you have scanned the items and discarded some that look unimportant, you are significantly reducing your ability to maximise your score because you will have no idea of the implications an unread item may have on a question.

If you are unable to answer all the questions you will be reducing your chances of being a successful candidate. The extent to which this is detrimental will depend on how many questions you are unable to answer.

The number of questions in an exercise are designed so that you can answer them all, but it doesn’t mean that you will have several minutes for each one. You will have to ensure that you proportion the time you have available sensibly, using several minutes to consider a more complex questions and using considerably less time on such questions as ‘which one of the following items would you retain?’.

The key to your success will be how well you have evaluated the information contained in the overview and items and then used this knowledge to make decisive and sound judgements and decisions in the questions you are asked. How well you prioritise the required actions resulting from the items or documents in your exercise will carry considerable marks. The extent to which this will influence your final score will depend on the level of position you are applying and how key such behaviour will be in that role.

As in many assessment centre choice tests, if you know you have several questions left unanswered as the Assessor calls your attention to the last five minutes, it is worthwhile quickly using those last few minutes to randomly select an option . In many cases the answers are not clear cut in an exercise such as the in-tray one, and you can often pick up partial marks by choosing another answer. It is vital that you remember during this exercise that your objective is to maximise your score and to do this you have to exhibit the ‘behaviours’ the Assessors have selected as essential for the position.

Finally, if during the exercise you have been unable to answer some of the questions when you come to your ‘justification section’ (if this is included in your exercise) you will not be able to score any marks when you are asked about the issues raised in these questions because you will not have given them any thought. This is especially poignant when there can be at least an hour or two gap between the questions and justification.

Not all in-tray or in-basket exercises have an opportunity for you to justify why you selected the answer you did. For the majority of participants the in-tray exercise will consist of time to read the overview and in-tray items and then a further allocation of time to answer multiple choice questions.

It is unlikely that a discussion aspect to the in-tray exercise will be sprung on you on the day In most cases you will be told in your invitation to the Assessment Centre  that your in-tray exercise includes a section to discuss or justify your answers. The use of the justification, or discussion, tends to be used for the more senior level positions where the Assessors are required to thoroughly assess your decision making abilities. They will be assessing how well you can explain your actions and decisions, as well as testing your resolve to stick with your original decision.

The justification may take the form of a very structured walk through of each question in turn with minimal feedback or response from the Assessors. If your prospective role requires you to have considerable analytical and evaluator skills you may find that the justification is targeted at those most important issued raised in the in-tray documentation. If this is the style of justification you know you will experience then it is essential that you grasp the key organisational and project issues so that your reasoning is based on a sound foundation of the situation presented in the exercise. Many questions will ask you to ‘choose the option closest to what you would do.’ This is especially important for you to highlight as part of your justification, because although you chose a certain approach if you faced the situation in real life you would act slightly differently giving your reasons why. This enables you to bring in your own skills and expertise as part of your justification.

Some Assessment Centre Assessors prefer to have a discussion after the in-tray exercise. This may be with the candidate and a small panel of assessors; or it can be with all, or a small group, of the other candidates and an assessor. Usually the Assessor will ask how many selected Option A, for example, as their answer and ask them to justify why they chose that instead of Option E. The behaviours you would be expected to exhibit are similar to that for the justification above in terms of how you arrived at your decision, but you will also need to take into account the dynamics of working within a group. The most important thing for you to do is to ensure that you view is heard by the group and the Assessor and you are able to clearly justify that decision.

Where you are applying for these senior roles you should prepare for this aspect of the in-tray exercise as you would for any interview. For example, if you work through a test  in-tray exercise when you read through the reasoning for the answer you can prepare your own queries you would ask if you were the assessor. Design your queries to test the reasoning behind the selected option and see how easily a candidate could be persuaded to change their answer. You can also compare how your current organisation would respond to your chosen answer. In this way you will be testing the strength and vigour of your own decisions.

You could also get a colleague or mentor to work through the test in-tray exercise and then before you look at the answers compare your chosen options. Where you have agreement see if you both have evaluated the information provided and assigned the same priority to the issue. This will enable you to see another perspective to the same problem and give you some insight as to what the Assessor will be looking for. Where your answers are different you can see how well you justify your own answer and if you can see any flaws in your analysis of the situation. This will give you a real feeling of how easily you can justify your own answers, or whether you are too easily persuaded to change.

The purpose of the  in-tray exercise is to see how well you are able to deal with a ‘typical days’ in-tray for the role which you have applied. Assessors want to see how well your decisions match those of a ‘good manager or executive’ in their organisation. So with well researched knowledge, sound preparation and practice you should find one of the answers provided that most closely matches your own response.

It is vital that you remember the exercise is designed to show the Assessors at your Assessment Centre how well you perform the key tasks which they have identified as essential for the role. You must be able to show your ability:

  • To gain an understanding of a situation, or issue, raised in the exercise.
  • Make decisions based on the information provided, without making any presumptions.
  • How quickly you can make decisions, even if you have incomplete information.
  • Your ability to evaluate information and respond to a question.
  • How well you handle management issues.
  • Time management skills
  • To set appropriate priorities which endorse the organisational values.
  • Delegation and monitoring of tasks.


When performing an in-tray exercise you must prepare you mindset so that you are thinking as if you were a member of the organisation already. The best way you can achieve this is by maximising your score during this exercise. The best way to do this is to complete the majority, if not all, of the tasks set you. To do this you must develop your skill in quickly and accurately evaluating information provided and in your ability to form a comprehensive overview of a multi-situational environment.

As you practice in-tray exercises you will improve your reading and evaluations skills so that you are able to quickly assess and draw out key points from the in-tray items. You will learn to identify the key strategic and management issues (often hidden within text or administrative details) that enable you to select the best answer to give you maximum marks for the question. A vital part of your preparation must be well research information on the organisation you wish to join so that you have a clear understanding of their ethos, management style and mission. Armed with this knowledge you can then ensure that your behaviours and answers reflect this and show you to be the best candidate for the position.

If your in-tray exercise includes a ‘Justification’ aspect you will have the opportunity to point across your own view point and your reasoning for it. But remember to only use the information you have been provided with do not draw your own conclusions and do not be afraid to say you’d want further information before you made a final decision. During the justification you must present a well reasoned and argued point of view to support your answer; in this way you will maximise your final score.

Whilst the ‘None of the above’ option is sometimes used to distract you from properly evaluating the issue posed in the question, in some instances they do actually provide a valid option which you could, if you wished, select as your answer.

The key aspect to remember is to fully assess what the question is asking you and to then determine what would be the most appropriate course of action when you take all the other issues and items included in your in-tray exercise. By practising in-tray exercises you will become more familiar with the style and format of the questions and by reviewing your answers you will be able to understand how to increase your score. It is important to remember although each question poses just one issue you must consider your answer within the context of the whole picture portrayed in your in-tray items.

For example, in your in-tray exercise you could be assigned the role of Business Development Manager. One of your items could be telling you a whole weeks production of your new prototype was lost due to poor quality control and you have to replace this be the end of the week in order to ensure testing of the prototype can still go ahead. Another item tells you that you must also meet current orders otherwise the company will lose money. From reading all the other items and the overview you ascertain that this production issues is vital and the pre-testing meetings you must attend are of strategic importance to the long-term success of the company.

One of your questions asks you how you would deal with the Human Resources Directors memo requesting to see you to urgently discuss the negative feedback from your team. Your multiple choice answers could look like this:

  • Arrange a meeting for this morning.

  • Contact the Human Resources Director immediately and discuss the feedback

  • Call his secretary and fix up a meeting for tomorrow.

  • Reply to his memo saying you’ll see him this afternoon.

  • None of the above

In this instance selecting ‘None of the above’ is the correct answer. This is because in your role as Business Development manager you are responsible for the strategic development of the company. Just from the brief information above you can see that you urgently need to focus on the production issues regarding the prototype and the customer orders. You already are heavily committed to meeting for the testing next week so you have little time spare. Whilst it is important that you address the negative feedback of your team with the Human Resources Director it is not a top priority for someone who has such strategic responsibility within the company.

This decision could change if from reading the other items in a scenario, the negative feedback of your team directly effected your key purpose within the company. During any in-tray exercise you must make your decisions according to your brief. This type of questions is assessing your ability to prioritise, manage your time and assign a level of importance to each item.

This will depend on whether or not you have been told that your in-tray exercise has a justification or group discussion, element. If you have been told this is included then you will have the opportunity to expand on your answers and maybe say where you found them limiting in certain circumstances. But keep your mind focused on the important issue of ensuring the Assessors see that you have the necessary skills, knowledge, attributes and attitudes (KSA’s) of the role.

You must always ensure any answer or explanation you give is founded in well researched knowledge of the organisation and role. For example, if you are currently a manager your answer may be more focussed on the management aspects of the questions; but if you are applying for an executive or directors role you would be expected to illustrate a more business orientated and strategic aspect to your answer. It is often really helpful to watch and think how you see a person you respect acting in their role and reflecting on how it differs from how you would respond in your current position. To achieve as many marks as possible within your  Assessment Centre you will need to think and react as someone already performing that role.

Frequently your opportunity to justify your answers can be several hours apart from when you worked through the in-tray item and answered the multiple choice questions. You will probably have been taking part in other exercises and you will have to quickly turn your mind back to the in-tray exercise and all the issues it raised. Therefore, it is essential that you made clear and concise notes on how and why you arrived at your decision so that you can quickly familiarise yourself with the context of the exercise again and which of the in-tray items are key for you to refer to.

When you are practicing the in-tray exercise you will develop your own individual technique and possibly your own version of a short-hand, which will enable you to speed up your ability to assimilate and evaluate information presented to you. You may find it easier to use post-it notes which you can easily move around your paperwork and provides you with an easy method for cross referencing. Always remember to add the item you are referring to on any post-it note so that you quickly explain which items you used to draw your conclusions from and make your decision. Another really useful aid is the use of highlighters for key information, or names, which will enable you to quickly refresh your memory when asked to justify your answer to the Assessors.

Watch that you are not easily dissuaded from your original answer as the Assessors will want to see that you are confident of your answer, but do not appear arrogant. If they point out a conflict or issue you have missed during your discussion be willing to agree that you have overlooked or disregarded this. Assessors at this time will be testing how easily you can be moved from your stance and whether or not you are flexible.

You will have to ensure during these exchanges that you come across as approachable and a good listener, and do not give the impression that you are arrogant and narrow minded. You should reflect the type of behaviours you see the role requiring and what you know best to fit in with the ethos of the organisation.

You will frequently find that you are not supplied with all the information you may desire to make a truly informative decision, the in-tray exercise requires you to select the ‘best’ option that reflects the key behaviours and reflects the skills the organisation requires for the successful candidate. If you did have all the information required to make your decision it would probably make such an exercise too complex and long to be practical to do within the Assessment Centre.

The Assessors or the creators of the in-tray questions and the multiple choice answers provide you with what they consider to be the most appropriate, possible and unsuitable answers for the role. Beware they may have certain choices which reflect the actions of someone in the position below the required role, i.e. that of a supervisory rather than a manager, or an executive rather than a director. If you choose these options you will show the Assessors that you are not yet ready for promotion and be awarded minimum or nil marks.

By including time to practice this type of exercise before your Assessment Centre, the more adept you will become and selecting the answer that will see you being awarded maximum marks. Some candidates find it easier to use separate clean sheets of paper to write down the links to issues between items. This is often really useful when the overview includes a written organisational chart rather than a pictorial one which makes it easier to see the relationships between parties and people. You may also wish to create your own flow charts, or mind maps, to give you a clearer understanding of the relationships and knock-on effects of items.

It is important to keep at the fore front of your mind that the  in-tray exercise is not designed to test the quality of your decisions, but to test how well you can make decisions under a severe time restriction. You often only have 20 to 40 minutes to read around 24 items and begin to create a picture of the key issues, problem areas, conflicts or personnel concerns. Then you will have a further 30 minutes approximately to answer between15 to 24 questions. This is when you will need to be able to quickly look back to the items referred to in the question and any other items that relate to the issue raised.

The number of items and questions will vary and reflects the nature of the position for which you are applying. For example, an  in-tray exercise aimed at recruiting managers may have more items and questions than a similar exercise designed for a strategic position. In the case of the latter it is likely that the complexity of the items and questions posed will be of a more detailed nature.

What you must do to maximise your score for the in-tray exercise is to come to a decision as best you can from the information provided and then select the one which best fits in with the multiple answers supplied. This process will be a lot easier if you make good notes and highlight in some way key information or critical data. You will need to be able to refer back to other items that impact on the question item and quickly see the salient points you need to use in making your decision.

As you read through the numerous in-tray exercise items – memos, emails and messages – that make up the exercise in-tray you must not be tempted to try and solve each one as you come across it. This is not the purpose of the exercise, you must note down or highlight the bits of the information that you think are key and have implications for other areas of the organisation or personnel. It is only once you have been given the questions to answer that you must draw on this information and make your decisions and select the answer that best fits your decision.

Frequently conflicting or contradictory items are included to assess how well you as the candidate evaluate information and their ability to prioritise. It will also gauge your ability to spot mistakes and conflicts, as well as your attention to detail. These are used by Assessors to ascertain how effective you are when working under a severe time restraint and does this impact on your ability to manage, or think, strategically. Where you find such a conflict do not try to find a resolution just be mindful of it and use this knowledge when selecting you answers.

For example, the best answer could be for ‘you to switch production from one item to another to meet the strategic business needs’, the in-tray exercise is not asking you to solve how to meet current production requirements or decide how this is reallocated. The question is testing your ability to weigh up the important issues and prioritise what needs to be done, you are not expected to solve the problem in this exercise.

Many in-tray exercises include items which have:

  • Incorrect dates for meetings or events, e.g. 30th February;

  • Spell names incorrectly from that on the organisation chart in the answers, e.g. the chart spells the name Mary Clarke, but the memo you’ve been asked to approve has Mary Clark on it;

  • Use the wrong gender e.g. Mr Smith instead of Mrs Smith – in the item the person was referred to as Pat Smith, but the candidate did not pay attention to the use of the female pronoun later on in the item;

  • Miss off key data in an item or reply that would be needed by the recipient to perform your required action, e.g. product identification number, distribution depot to be used etc.

You will only need to consider what to do with conflicting or contradictory information if a question asks you to decide how to respond to, or how you would handle it. This often takes the form of double bookings within your diary and the question aims to assess, by your answer, how you would prioritise such an item as if you were in the role. The more you practice this type of assessment centre exercise the more familiar you will become with its workings.

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