What is an In-Tray or In-Basket Exercise?

The in-tray exercise is a widely used assessment centre exercise because of the diversity of behaviours as well as, Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (KSA’s) that can be tested. For example the main behaviour’s that you will need to demonstrate in this exercise are:

• Planning,
• Prioritisation,
• Decision making,
• Management style,
• Evaluation of situations,
• Analysis of information,
• Speed & Accuracy,
• Effective use of Time.

It is therefore vital that you master this exercise, as it will form a substantial part of your final score. This is often the type of exercise many candidates struggle with so if you have participated in this type of exercise before you may need to discover ways to improve your score.

By practicing In-tray exercises you will become familiar with the type of question and learn how best to respond to the problems or issues raised in the items improving your marks and chances of success. This will help you to recognise which types of behaviours you most need to demonstrate in such an exercise to achieve success. The particular behaviour, skills, attitudes or knowledge that are being tested for will vary according to your job specification and your type and style of organisation.

Your In-tray exercise will usually form two parts, first will be reading and understanding the variety of ‘in-tray items you are given with the brief. Secondly, after you’ve read through all the In-tray items you will then have to answer questions on how you would respond to the situations each question presents. The most popular formats are:

• You are given between 12-24 in-tray items, which you have to priorities and say how you’d action by answering a series of 15-30 multiple choice questions.
• You are given between 12-24 in-tray items, which you have to priorities and say how you’d action. This is then followed by a ‘Justification’ with an Assessor or as a group discussion on why and how you came to your decisions.
• You are given up to an hour to read through 15-35 in-tray items, prioritise and decide possible courses of action. Then you would have a gap before you either:
           o Answer a set of 12-24 multiple choice questions (often more complex in nature); and / or,
           o Justify your proposed actions to an assessor or through a group discussion for up to another hour.

The complexity of the issues you are presented with and the nature of the questions you have to answer will be directly related to the nature and level of position you are applying for. For the higher level positions some In-tray exercises can last up to three hours, but if this is the case the exercise is often split into several parts as described in the last type of popular format.

For the majority of In-tray exercises you will be presented with an emergency situation or one in which you have very little time to deal with your scenario presented. It is these sort of situations that will show the assessor the type of behaviours you exhibit in pressured and reactive situations.

The most popular type of scenarios you are likely to be presented with will be along the lines of one of the following:

• You’ve just started a new job and pop into your new office on Saturday to familiarise yourself with things before starting on Monday and you receive a call from your new boss saying they want you to stand-in for them for the next two weeks.
• It is you last day before a week’s break and your boss’s secretary calls you to say that due to a family emergency your boss has had to go at once and wants you to manage things during their absence.
• You’ve been in your job for a short while and your boss asks you to manage your department’s strategic project over the next two weeks as they have been called immediately up to head office.

In addition to this scenario description, you will also be several pieces of information. The more familiar you are with analysing this type of information the greater your score will be.

• A description of your role.
• Background information on the situation.
• Organisational chart or description of responsibilities.

It is really important to only use the provided information in your decisions, you will not gain extra marks by bringing in additional knowledge from your own experience –remember it is your behaviour they are testing.

As you practice this type of exercise you will be able to see the most appropriate behaviour’s in yourself and more easily display them. You will continually update your portfolio and Index cards to help support you in your quest for your career goal. In this way you will more easily be able to show the assessors that you possess what they require and have an awareness of the wider picture.

If you are applying for top-level management, or strategic roles, you will find that your In-tray exercise is longer and has a greater intensity contained within its items than those on lower grades. The type of issues you will be asked to review and action will reflect the nature of the role you have applied for.

If you are applying for a strategic role then it is likely that you can expect a significant number of your in-tray items to test this aspect. Whereas, if you are hoping for a management role, your In-tray items are more likely to raise issues about team building, coaching and motivation.

You may find that you are required to produce written responses to items, e.g. emails, letters or memos. Remember you being assessed on how you deal with these items not on the quality of your responses (but make sure you don’t make silly typing or spelling errors as this will lose marks).

If you need to write a response then you must be mindful of the following and ensure your response is appropriate.

• Your style should match that of the In-tray item.
• Your tone should reflect the level of importance / priority of the In-tray item.
• You should be mindful of who is to receive your response i.e.
           o Member of your staff,
           o Director or
           o External person or Stakeholder.
• Incorporate the style of your Organisation. For example,
           o Use of bullet points or text,
           o Acronyms or descriptions,
           o Formal or informal language.

As the intensity of the exercises increases the likelihood of being able to complete the whole exercise in the allocated time diminishes. It is how you respond to an issue that matters more than being able to complete the whole exercise. The latter should always be your goal as this aspect of the exercise is never known and the more you are able to do will improve your ability to have a ‘true’ understanding of the issues presented.

Your assessors will score you on the following; the importance given to each point will vary according to the behaviour’s required for the job.

• How well you identify the ‘Key’ issue of the item.
• Your interpretation of the information provided.
• Ease and speed with which you arrive at your decision.
• The way in which you evaluate the information.
• How effective your actions / decisions are in dealing with the presented problem.

During your preparation for the In-tray exercise it is important to keep in mind the Behaviour’s your Assessors will be looking for you to exhibit and scoring you on. You will want to maximise your score and by focusing your activities on the following points you will concentrate on completing the task rather than getting draw into the minute of the problems posed.

If the in-tray exercise involves a discussion of your answers and the opportunity to explain your decisions then you must remember that during this discussion you are also being assessed in terms of how you handle yourself under ‘interrogation’ of your work. The Assessor will be observing how you respond to criticism and how easily you can be persuaded to alter your decision.

The justification provides you with an excellent opportunity to explain why you prioritised things in the way you did. This may be because of your experience or the type of environment you currently work in. You will also have the opportunity to bring into the discussion your knowledge gained from your research into the organisation, its ethos and mission statement. If you can also show how your reasoning matches the values and beliefs of the organisation you will be able to increase marks for this exercise.

During the justification of the in-tray exercise your notes and prioritising methods (post-it’s, numbers or letters in a specific corner) will enable you to be more efficient and effective in your answers as you won’t be thumbing through all the items to find what you want to support your answers. By spending time at the end of the exercise to put all the in-tray items into orderly piles, with clear notes to help you, you’ll easily and quickly be able to refresh your memory if your justification follows a break from the initial exercise. You will also be able to show how other items in the in-tray supported or influenced your decisions. This will illustrate your aptitude and skills in organisation and evaluation of information and raise your marks with the Assessors.

When you are performing the exercise you must remember to perform the task as if you were the actual character working in the fictional organisation given in the initial brief, not as yourself in your current position and organisation. If you do the latter even though you may resolve many of the issues raised in the in-tray, you will achieve lower marks because you will not be exhibiting the necessary behaviours required for the new role. So it is vital that when you are practicing the in-tray exercise you put yourself in the appropriate mindset.


You must also be prepared to describe what strategies you used during the process and how you divided up the time allowed for the exercise. Be prepared to offer a detailed explanation of how you arrived at your decision and what factors you used to make it. Also, how and why you prioritised the items in the way you did and how you believe this reflects the objectives of the organisation.

If you are asked to justify your decisions then the assessors will be trying to determine some or all of the following things about you:

  • Do you become defensive when your arguments is scrutinised?
  •  How well do you deal with criticism?
  • Are you able to demonstrate a sound basis for your decision?
  • Can you be flexible?
  • Are you open to altering your decision if a better solution presents itself?
  • How easily can you be drawn from your decision?
  • Are you a people, or results, person?

One of the most important things you will need to demonstrate is that your decisions match what you are saying and describing in the justification. You must be able to show that you have a clear understanding of the main issues raised in the items and of how you arrived at your decision. They will want to see that you are consistent in your arguments or approaches to a problem. It is important that your justification for each item matches your previously written answers, especially as there may be several hours gap between the two.

Your assessors will be looking to see if you can identify with the individual who’s role you have played and with the sort of issues and problems he or she faced. They may even ask you to describe the sort of person you think he or she is.

A favourite question which can come at the beginning, or the end, of the justification, is ‘If you were doing this in-tray exercise again would you do anything differently?’ If the question is used to open the discussion then you can reply that you are happy with your decisions and you feel that the exercise went well. But if you are asked at the end then your answer will be influenced by how well the discussion has gone.

What is important is that you reply honestly. Just be aware that if you respond by saying that you may do some things differently, then be ready for the next question of ‘Why didn’t you do it this way in the exercise?’ You may then use some of the feedback you have received during the discussion to back this up.

Often assessors will ask what you thought of the in-tray exercise itself and it is extremely important that you respond in a positive way. You can say that you felt it was a true representation of the issues and problems someone in the role would face and has provided you with the opportunity to illustrate how well you could perform the role. Under no circumstances should you criticise the exercise as this will be seen as negative.

If appropriate, you may wish to add that you felt the in-tray exercise has helped you to quickly gain an impression of the organisation and the issues that it faced. You may also want to highlight where you would want to know additional information to accurately form a view as to the likely success of the organisation and its partners or stakeholders.

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