What's an in-tray exercise? (With advice and what to expect)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Employers use in-tray activities to test a range of candidates' skills and abilities in settings that closely match those they might encounter in a real workplace. This can provide a more accurate and reliable picture of their characteristics and behaviours. If you're applying for a job and go to an assessment centre, the activities may include completing some kind of in-tray exercise, so knowing what to expect can help you prepare and increase your chances of success. In this article, we describe what an in-tray exercise is and what to expect from one and provide tips for passing one.

What is an in-tray exercise?

In-tray exercises, or the digital version, e-tray exercises, are a test of your capacity to deal with a real-world work environment, such as a high volume of information and a variety of competing demands on your time. The employer gives you an outline scenario that provides some background information, and your task is to decide how to react to fresh information in the format of emails, meeting requests and other forms of communication. You may receive these exercises at an assessment centre or even earlier during the online application submission.

While in-tray and e-tray exercises test the same set of competencies, their format and delivery are completely different. The fundamental difference between them is that the former only use pencil and paper, whereas e-tray exercises are computerised. During these exercises, applicants receive a stack of paper documents to address or prioritise, whereas during an e-tray exercise, they address emails and other electronic documents using simulated email software. Because of the prevalence of computers in the workplace and the convenience of assessment, e-tray exercises are much more common today.

Related: A guide on how to ace an interview (with tips and examples)

What to expect during an in-tray exercise

You typically start the test by being given a scenario. Here are some examples of scenarios that employers might use for these exercises:

  • You're currently employed in the position for which you applied.

  • You're filling in for your employer while they are away and are responsible for managing their workload.

  • You're the marketing manager and are coming back to the office after a holiday.

  • You're a new hire, and it's necessary to go through an orientation and cope with a 'work crisis' at the same time.

Then you're presented with a variety of information. This may include emails (including attachments), meeting requests, and instant messages if the exercise is an e-tray, or material on paper files, printed emails, post-its, diaries, and calendars if the exercise is an in-tray.

You may be required to plan meetings and take part in training or briefings on health and safety in any format. It might also be necessary for you to set priorities for a to-do list, return calls, or assign jobs to team members. Depending on the role you've applied for, your task is likely to include addressing issues (such as a client complaint) or providing advice on a commercial project (such as a merger).

In some exercises, the requirement may be for you to complete any or all of the following:

  • Choose your favourite option from a selection of possible actions or responses.

  • Sort a range of potential reactions or activities into 'most effective' and 'least effective' categories.

  • Create a to-do list with priorities and explain why you would take the actions you did.

  • Respond to some or all of the items in an email.

Exercises in the in-tray and e-tray are timed, typically lasting between 30 and 80 minutes. Employers can typically accommodate disability-related time needs if you mention them in advance or note them on your application form.

Related: What are interview tasks and how can you prepare for them?

How do employers asses in-tray exercises?

Two frequent approaches to assess your response to in-tray items are multiple-choice questions or an interview in which you explain and justify your actions and conclusions. Sometimes, an employer may use a mix of these methods to evaluate you. Before you begin, check the assessment criteria and whether or not the employer permits you to write on the objects in your in-tray.

If you won't be able to discuss your replies with an assessor, write down everything you brainstormed. Make a note of any scheduling conflicts, time commitments, limited resources, appointments, how people interact with each other or anything else you consider important to think about in your answer. E-tray exercises follow the same rules.

Related: How to succeed in a group exercise interview (with tips)

Tips on passing an in-tray exercise

You can approach your exercise with confidence if you follow the guidance below, which can help you perform at your best:

1. Carefully read the instructions

Employers urge candidates to study the instructions thoroughly, even if they appear straightforward. Doing so can ensure you are aware of any deadlines or time frames and understand the exercise deliverables. The employer or assessor provides all the information necessary to complete the exercise, so it's in your best interest to read everything carefully.

Related: What is a skills assessment test and how is it used?

2. Stay calm

People often feel nervous and anxious during in-tray activities and psychometric testing, but too much anxiety can impact your performance. You can take a number of measures to alleviate your worry, such as practising thoroughly ahead of time, arriving at the assessment centre in plenty of time and getting enough sleep the night before. Also, remember that companies evaluate your performance throughout the round rather than just assess your score from one particular exercise.

Related: How to beat interview anxiety (a guide for before and during)

3. Be aware of the time

No matter what the key skills are for the job you're applying for, keep in mind that all types of in-tray activities test your ability to use the time you have as effectively and productively as possible. While it's important to finish the assignment in the allotted time, it's also necessary to be accurate when completing tasks. The key to success with in-tray activities is striking an effective balance between working quickly and taking enough time to make informed decisions.

Related: Time-management skills: definition, examples and tips for improvement

4. Prioritise

Prioritising your time is just as important as prioritising the items in your in-tray during the exercise. Spend as little time as possible on tasks that are obviously of lower value so that you can focus later on making the more crucial decisions and judgments. Just like in real life, the material frequently contains intentional red herrings or junk mail. Be aware that it might be necessary to complete certain tasks before others, so keep your list of priorities flexible.

Related: What is prioritising?

5. Check your spelling and grammar

Assessors often prefer candidates to utilise proper spelling and punctuation when composing their comments or recommendations. During this activity, they may evaluate written communication as a competency, so having accurate spelling or punctuation can boost your performance. Spend some time proofreading your work to ensure your work is accurate.

6. Consider the priorities of the company you're applying to

The majority of in-tray tasks assess a certain set of crucial skills that the company values highly. For instance, they might concentrate on your ability to delegate, your willingness to communicate your difficulties with others, your independence or your preference for or aversion to following rules. Consider the skills that each employer values and be sure to emphasise these qualities when working through the activities.

To inform your decisions, draw on your prior research into the organisation and the position. You can determine what to do by considering the role's primary goals and the company's corporate values. For instance, if one of the company's values is respecting clients and colleagues, it's probably a good idea to respond to a colleague's email.

7. Commit to the role

Exercises in the in-tray are a sort of role-playing. You assume the role of an employee at a company and complete a certain task, such as catching up on work after a vacation. You might find it easier to make judgments in a smooth, natural manner if you commit to the part and stay in character. It's easier to approach challenges proactively if you have a strong feeling of immersion in the fictional world.

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