Introduction to the In-Tray Exercise

If your assessment centre involves an in-tray exercise then you will usually be asked to assume a particular role as an employee of a fictitious organisation and to work through a pile of correspondence in your in-tray. The in-tray exercise items will be specifically designed to measure job skills such as: ability to organize and prioritize work; analytical skills; communication with team members and customers; written communication skills; and delegation.

Assessment Centre In tray Exercises

The in-tray exercise is a major component of most assessment centres, not only because of the variety of skills, knowledge and attitudes that can be tested but because this exercise also has considerable ‘face validity’. This means that candidates can see how it relates to the job they are applying for and therefore they tend to take it seriously.

It is vital that you practice this exercise to improve your chances of achieving a maximum score. With practice, you can learn to see which specific in-tray items are testing which of your skills and learn how best to respond to the problems and issues they raise.

Remember, if you have not practiced an in-tray exercise before it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of material you are presented with and expected to work through in the time available. At the very least you should practice working through items and classifying them according to their urgency and importance. You will invariably find that there are one or two ‘major issues’ hidden among the in-tray items and if you miss these you will struggle to remain a credible candidate.

Many people find the in-tray to be the most difficult of all of the assessment centre exercises. Your brief may be something totally unexpected like being told that it is the first day of your new job as deputy head-teacher and given a list of thirty tasks and memos to prioritize and action. You may be given this type of scenario even if you are applying for a job that has nothing to do with education.

Assement Center Exercise

Don’t make the mistake of worrying about the topic. You will be judged on how well you can handle complex information, determine priorities, make decisions within time limits, display sensitivity to potential problems and communicate clearly. Try to imagine that you are at work doing the described duties, rather than just completing an exercise, but make sure that the reasons for your actions are clear and documented.

The type of issues you will be asked to review and action will reflect the ‘nature’ of the role you have applied for. This does not necessarily mean that the scenario will be based on your industry or sector, but it does mean that if you are applying for a strategic role then it is likely that you can expect a significant number of your in-tray items will be designed to test your strategic decision making; whereas if you are hoping for a management role, the in-tray items are more likely to raise issues about team building, coaching, motivation and other management issues.

In-tray exercises can take a variety of formats and the two most popular are :

  1. You are given between 12-24 in-tray items which you have to prioritise and action. This is done by answering a series of multiple choice questions (usually 15-30).
  2. You are given between 12-24 in-tray items which you have to prioritise and action. This is followed by an interview with an assessor in which you are expected to justify your decisions.

For the majority of in-tray exercises you will be given the following information and told that it has all taken place in the same calendar year.

  • Details of your role and responsibilities.
  • Key issues and objectives of the organisation.
  • An organisational chart or description.
  • A list of the staff that report to you (where applicable)
  • A list of key employees that you may need to interact with during the exercise.
  • Third party relationships and activities.
  • A calendar of the next two to three months.


You should check whether you can write on, or jot notes on, the in-tray items themselves. If you can, then make full use of this option. Be mindful to be consistent in where you write your notes so that you can easily review them i.e. always in bottom right-hand corner. Remember that everything you do must maximise and efficiently use the time you have available.

From the data you are supplied with you will be able to extract the necessary information which will form the basis of your decision making during the exercise. During your preparation for the in-tray exercise it is important keep in mind the Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes your assessors will be looking for you to exhibit.

If you are applying for a top level management or strategic role, you will find that the in-tray exercise is longer and has a greater intensity contained within its items than those on line management grades. You will frequently find that you are required to produce written responses to items. 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 the major issues that matters, more than being able to complete the whole exercise but the latter should always be your goal.

For some candidates their in-tray exercise could be up to three hours in length. This is frequently done in two or three sections which are fitted around the other exercises you will undertake during the assessment centre. You can rest assured that all candidates will have the same experience, so that you can all be scored fairly.

You may also be interested in Maximizing Your Score, Working Through the Items, Justifying Your Decisions, Explaining Your Answers.

Pass the In-Tray Exercise