In-Tray Exercise

An in-tray exercise is a paper-based simulation used to assess the aptitude of potential employees as part of the selection process. Candidates will be presented with a business-related scenario, accompanied by a list of related tasks including telephone calls, emails, complaints and reports. It is then up to the individual to prioritise each task in accordance to their perceived importance, providing reasons why they have chosen the selected sequence.

In-tray exercises are used by many companies as part of the selection process, and they commonly appear as part of the interview stage.

In-tray versus e-tray

Businesses are starting to move away from the traditional, paper-based in-tray exercise to a very similar type of test, called an E-tray exercise. The principle of the test is the same, but the documents are provided in an email inbox rather than on paper. The subject matter usually relates to the company and the type of job that you are hoping to secure. For example, a legal secretary may have tasks such as processing a piece of dictation, responding to a client query, setting a meeting for a solicitor and so on.

Once you have read through the instructions and supporting information, you will then need to organise the tasks in the sequence you wish to complete them, providing answers to justify your choices. Note that questions and answers tend to be longer in an in-tray exercise than in the e-tray exercise, which is usually multiple choice.

How is an in-tray exercise structured?

If you are asked to complete an in-tray or e-tray exercise, you will be presented with a specific scenario and told to prioritise a set of tasks. You'll need to work through these tasks within a given time frame (typically between 30 minutes and an hour, although some tests can last up to 2 hours). The tasks contained within the in-tray can vary considerably, though they generally include answerphone messages, correspondence, a diary or planner, organisational charts and a list of emails.

During the test, you will be expected to:

  • Make calculations
  • Extract information from data
  • Make judgement calls dealing with demanding managers/unhappy clients etc.

In-tray exercise

An in-tray exercise is about deciding what report to work on first.

How to approach the test

Before you start anything, read through the information that you have been provided with thoroughly, so that you fully understand what is required. When you are ready to begin, treat the tasks as you would on a normal day. It can be difficult to think clearly in test situations but it is really important that you stay calm and approach it in a logical manner.

Identify those tasks which are the most important or urgent as a starting point. Look at any deadlines which have been set and factor this into your decisions.

Manage your time carefully so that you have the best chance of working through everything that has been assigned to your in-tray. The most important thing to remember is: don’t rush. If you try to hurry through to get finished, there is a strong chance that you will make an error which you may not realise until it’s too late.

The recruiters will be looking for your ability to identify key points, so try not to over-analyse things. You need to make a decision based on the tasks and information you have been presented with.

Tips for success

If you have been asked to complete an in-tray exercise, you ought to carry out as much preparatory work as you can beforehand. If you prepare properly and follow the tips in this article, there is no reason why your in-tray assessment can’t be a success. Bear the following in mind:

  • Many large graduate recruiters (particularly financial institutions and accountancy firms) use in-tray exercises during their candidate assessment centre.As such, sometimes you will be given notice of your in-tray exercise well in advance. If you need to practise beforehand (we strongly recommend you do), in-tray and e-tray simulator tests are available at JobTestPrep and AssessmentDay.

  • Once you are at the test centre or interview, read through the instructions carefully before you begin. It can be very tempting to just skip over the content so you can complete the test and move on to the next stage, but an oversight at this stage can have disastrous consequences. Attention to detail and the ability to read and interpret instructions correctly will be the key attributes that a potential employer will be looking for.

  • Approach the test logically, just as you would if you were presented the same task in that role. Time can pass quickly during the test, so it is important that you manage your time effectively (this is a skill that your potential employer will be looking to assess). Keep a check on the time, and try to finish with enough spare so that you can review your work and make any amendments if required.

  • Some in-tray exercises will have a written section, where you will be required to respond to an email. Typically, no spell-checker is provided, so you must be certain to use words that you can spell confidently. Make sure you respond in a style appropriate to the email you have been sent, and ensure that it has a clear, logical structure. Proof-read what you have written before the time is up.

If you approach the assessment in the right way, remain calm throughout and apply common sense, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot complete a successful and strong in-tray or e-tray exercise as part of the selection process.

It can be very useful to take practice in-tray or e-tray tests before you sit the real thing. Practising these types of test means that you can become more familiar with the type of questions you will be asked, and learn how to answer questions quickly, within tight time constraints. We recommend the practise tests available at at JobTestPrep and AssessmentDay.

For further information on in-tray and e-tray exercises, check out this post. See also our articles on psychometric tests,  cognitive ability tests, clerical aptitude tests and the 10 key skills an admin assistant needs.