How to Succeed at In-Tray and E-Tray Exercises

What is an e-tray exercise?

An e-tray exercise is a simulated computer based exercise used as part of an assessment centre. The exercise requires you to read and respond to a series of messages presented in an email inbox. The exercise is based around a fictional work/business scenario where you have been given a particular job role.

You will be asked to read each item and make a decision on range of issues that arise. In order to respond to the emails, you will need to refer to various pieces of useful information given to you, for example background information on the company, an organisational chart, or newspaper articles about your company or industry. No prior knowledge is required to complete the exercise and all the information needed is provided within the assessment.

Why do employers use e-tray exercises?

Employers use e-tray exercises to assess a set of core competencies that are required for a particular work role. These competencies are often assessed by employers during an interview following the e-tray exercise, through the use of competency based questions. Competency based questions, however, involve describing a past situation or task when you have exhibited that particular quality. With an e-tray exercise, employers are able to assess these competencies first hand in a pressurised and timed simulation.

An e-tray exercise helps them assess your ability to manage and respond to a series of different tasks, to negotiate conflicting demands and analyse different priorities. Some of the core competencies which employers assess during e-tray exercises are:

You can take practice e-tray and in-tray tests here

Time/Task management

  • ability to delegate
  • ability to prioritise

Client Focus

  • flexible and adaptable when dealing with client requests

Analytical skills

  • ability to evaluate the relative importance and urgency of information

Interpersonal skills

  • ability to respond tactfully and take into consideration different personality types

Negotiation skills

  • ability to consider multiple and/or conflicting demands and decide on a course of action that contributes to the overall benefit of the organisation

Decision making ability

  • ability to make accurate and quick decisions

What items will be allocated to me during the e-tray exercise?

At the beginning of the e-tray exercise you will be provided with background information regarding your role in the organisation and other key facts such as the organisational structure.

The items allocated to you during the e-tray exercise could include any of the following: Emails, Invitations, Memos, Letters, Complaint letters, Telephone messages, Staff information, Organisational charts, Policy documents, Reports, Newspaper/magazine articles, Calenders, Reviews- internal and external.

How do I decide on the best way to action each item?

In deciding how to respond to each task, you will need to consider the following:

Who is the item from?

What is the individual’s significance to the organisation? Are they an internal stakeholder, such as a staff member? Or are they external, such as a client, customer or supplier?

'When was the item sent?

Check the date of the item and consider if there is a deadline. Is this deadline flexible? If you are unsure, is it possible to confirm or arrange for additional time to attend to the item?

How important is the issue?

Some e-tray exercises will ask you to sort the item into ‘urgent’ ‘non urgent’ or ‘important’ before you proceed to choose your response or how you would action the item. Consider how the item affects the organisation and in what way. Consider which areas of the company are affected by the item, for example: inventory supply, cash flow, legal, customer satisfaction, health and safety, union relations, competitors, or company reputation.

Do you need to attend to the item personally and straight away?

Some items will require your personal response, while others can be delegated or forwarded to another staff member or colleague. Additionally, assess how urgent the item is or if it could be deferred to action at a later time. Take into consideration who has sent you the item when assessing it’s urgency and importance.

Do certain tasks need to be completed in order?

Are there tasks which need completing before moving on to others? Can tasks be bundled and addressed by the same person and actioned at the same time? Are there conflicting tasks?

Structure

Most e-tray exercises will be divided into three parts.

Part 1: Reviewing background information

You will be provided with some background information about your company and your role. These may be presented as on-screen email folders. These folders or documents often contain information such as the organisational structure, company mission or objective, your team, your area of work, company policies or procedures, press cuttings, and other background information relating to your scenario.

Part 2: Multiple choice email response.

In part two you will respond to emails by selecting a multiple choice option. Some tests may ask you to choose two responses- the ‘most likely’ response along with the ‘least likely’ response for the same email. Other e-tray exercises will ask you to choose one response from three or four options. The tests currently used by Deloitte and KPMG use the latter format. Often, in a simulated exercise, these emails will appear in your inbox with increasing frequency as you answer them and particularly towards the end of the time limit.

Part 3: Written email response.

After completing the multiple choice section, you will then be given the task of constructing a written email. Employers will be assessing your grammar and written English ability during this part of the exercise. This means you should ensure your response does not contain any spelling mistakes as there will be no spell check available. Take into consideration who the email is addressed to, and choose an appropriate tone for the person you are replying to. Employers will also be looking to see how you structure your email. If you are given two emails to respond to, ensure you manage your time effectively so you are able to respond to both adequately. Employers will also be testing your reasoning ability during the written response, as the exercise will often ask for you to make a recommendation and provide reasons to substantiate your decision/recommendation. A key technique is to plan what you are going to say before you start writing, and to write your concluding paragraph first and work backwards providing supporting arguments for your conclusions.