How to Pass an In-Tray Exercise

Get a copy of our Ultimate Assessment Day & Interview guide here. It includes tips, insider-secrets and tricks that will help you succeed. 

This guide includes in-tray tips and advices that will help you know and learn what to expect during the exercise. It will also help you succeed in a step by step detail. 

What is in this in-tray guide?

In this guide, you will find:

  • Resources to boost your chances of success
  • In-tray example and links
  • Steps to in-tray exercise success. 

Essential resources for in-tray exercise success

  • Try out this in-tray exercise
  • Check our podcast episode here. It discusses in-tray success. 

What is the in-tray exercise?

The in-tray exercise is another form of assessment which is used by employers to check and have an idea of the candidates’ abilities which would be needed to assess if the candidate is suitable for a certain job role. It is a form of a business simulation wherein a member of staff would have to deal with a certain amount of workload on a typical day. 

The in-tray exercise is similar to the e-tray exercise. The e-tray is an electronic version of the in-tray exercise. 

What does the in-tray exercise measure?

This exercise assesses your analytical, written, communication, business acumen and delegation skills. It is used to evaluate and assess how well you:

  • Use your time and resources efficiently
  • Prioritize your workload
  • Anticipate and resolve problems
  • Identify, investigate and address key issues 
  • Delegate and liaise with others. 

This type of exercise allows your employer to get an overall idea on your work style and approach. 

How does the in-tray exercise work?

At first, you will get a background information and an imaginary scenario to help you build a clear picture of the situation. The information that will be provided usually consists of:

  • Information on your imaginary role and role responsibilities
  • Key issues and objectives of the organization
  • Organizational chart or description of your staff whom you will be responsible for.
  • Summary of 3rd party relationships and people outside the company such as customers, suppliers and distributors. 
  • Business calendar

Yes, it could sound very terrifying!

A lot of people are nervous of taking the in-tray exercise but do not worry as we will guide you step by step on how to pass and ace this exercise. 

Read our articles on How to Prepare for an Interview or Assessment Centre and How to Deal with Nerves and Anxiety. These articles provide guides and techniques that are effective. 

Can you give me an in-tray exercise example?

Of course, here is one example of an in-tray exercise example:

“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 which includes your analysis of each of the items
  • The priority that you would assign to each
  • Include who should be involved (colleague, department, 3rd party, other stakeholder, etc.)

You have 60 minutes to complete the exercise.”

Tip: read the brief and supporting documents that was given to you. Understand inside out as they always provide the context for the entire exercise. Do not rush and take your time.

Real in-tray exercise practice tests are often timed, graded and scored online. It includes easy to understand explanations and tips. To practice, click here.

In this practice test, you will learn the areas on which you will need to improve on. 

3 Simple Steps to In-Tray Exercise Success

Step 1- Get into the right mindset 

Before you work on the pile of documents given to you, you will need to understand what are the key things your employer wants from the person doing this role. Keep this in mind while doing the exercise. This will help you make the right decisions and recommendations. 

Tip: Ask the HR department for a job description for the role that you are applying for. Do not worry as this is fair and it will help you prepare. Aside from that, you will also show the HR personnel that you are very initiative and have the drive to get the job. Job descriptions include the core competencies that are required for the job role that you are applying for, 

Step 2- Scan and prioritize

Identify and prioritize your workload. Identify which are the most important and urgent tasks. Here is a good example on how to do this. 

n-Tray Exercise 1

Put a number on each box

n-tray exercise 2

Imagine your workload and review each item. Remember we are only listing and prioritizing each one. We are not in the process or solving anything at the moment.

For each item:

  • Identify the issue or problem. Try to understand and see if there are any implications. What are the motivation and drivers of the sender?
  • Check on the details. Are there items that have deadlines?
  • How important and urgent the issue is?

Use the four boxes and assign each item. Group your documents in four piles or you could electronically do them by marking them 1 to 4.

In box 1 you put all the tasks that are both important and urgent.

n-tray exercise 3

Box 2- important but not urgent. This could be dealt after items in box 1 are all solved and done.  

ast stream in-tray exercise

Box 3 are those that are not that important to your role but needs an urgent response. These items are urgent for someone else or for other department but needs your judgement. 

-tray exercise

Box 4 are those that are not important and are not urgent. This should be your last priority. You could even consider not addressing this. 

n-tray exercise 6

Now that you have set your priorities, you could now address each item in an orderly manner:

ivil service fast stream

Download our 12-step assessment day cheatsheet and be prepared confidently!

Step 3- Deal with each item

For items that you have placed in box 1, you will need to provide a list of actions and analysis of each item, priority that you would assign to each item and include who should be involved in each task. 

While you are doing that, consider the following:

  • How will you deal with it in the real world?
  • What could you do to solve the issue and when- now or in the future?
  • Should you do it yourself or delegate the task?
  • Which from your colleagues or 3rd parties could help you solve this?
  • Who from your colleagues that would need to be made aware of it?
  • Do you need to flag this or follow up?
  • Write down all of your observations and use sticky notes to annotate them all. This will help you especially if you have more than 30 documents to review. 

Tip: this is when you would need to see the job description of your role. Learn what does the company expect from you. 

Tip: Remember this exercise measures your skills and ability on writing, prioritization, analytical, communication, delegation and business acumen. When doing this exercise remember and consider all of these. 

Repeat the process for box 2,3 and 4. 

Real in-tray exercise tests

If you wish to impress your future employer, you could use these practice exercises.

Practicing will help you gain confidence and help you improve your skills and performance. It also reduces stress and increases one’s focus. 

Final questions for you…

  • Will you be taking a numerical reasoning test or verbal reasoning test? If yes, we suggest that you check out our aptitude tests section.
  • You could find practice tests and get free advice on other types of reasoning tests like numerical, logical, verbal, abstract, inductive, Watson- Glaser, spatial, diagrammatic, mechanical comprehension and UKCAT
  • Are you worried about your assessment day or performing a presentation or preparing for an interview or group/in-tray exercise?
  • Would you like to get some guidance on how to deal with nerves and anxiety at your interview?
  • Check our tools and resources page. 

Good Luck! We hope we were able to help you prepare for your In-tray exercise through this guide!