Working Through the Items

When you are working through the items in an in-tray exercise always try to be as logical and systematic as possible in the way that you work. The information may be presented in a haphazard way, but you don’t want to be seen to work in a haphazard way. Be mindful of how your desk or working area looks during and at the end of the exercise. Always try to present an organised appearance and try and avoid looking as if you are in chaos. Using post-it notes to identify items and clearly annotating items will greatly enhance your efficiency and help you to keep things under control.

Firstly, you should scan through each of the in-tray exercise items quickly and sort them into chronological order. At the same time, look out for items which are interdependent or items which make a previous item redundant. This is an important step as you don’t want to waste time with items which have been superseded and which don’t need to be auctioned. Also, you may think you have quickly solved one problem only to find that a memo sent three days later has added a further complication which makes your original decision unworkable or impractical.

For example, you may want to put his items into three piles using a post-it to identify each one – Urgent, Important & Routine. For each of these piles you may then segregate them further by who is to deal with them – Myself, Delegate (Name) & File, or it could be based on a time frame – Next Hour, Today, Tomorrow & Later. If you are using a time frame as a method of prioritising then you may wish to use the calendar provided or create your own to make notes on so that you can easily see and overview of the situation.

Use your highlighter to identify key information you have been given:

  • Who you are,
  • Your function,
  • Type of organisation (government, industrial or non-profit),
  • Recipient & how they relate to you,
  • Date on the item in relation to ‘today’s’
  • Dates of meetings & deadlines.


Sometimes details contained in your role overview may consciously try to limit your ability to respond so that they can assess how you deal with such a situation. If your response to an item is to delegate a task to one of your staff, the assessment centre assessors will want to observe how you perform this and how well it matches the organisations expectations. Do you provide a clear brief of the task requirements, details of the desired outcomes and a deadline. The assessors will also want to see how you would monitor progress. This could take the form of a note in your diary or planner.

An in-tray exercise item may say that you or your boss are un-contactable for a week. This infers that you, or your boss are unable to make or receive calls, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t call in or contact them either by phone, text, fax or email. You will need to carefully read the brief and make sure of exact meanings. Don’t be put off by minor diversions created in the brief.

Other items can be used to assess your attention to detail. For example, do you make a connection to an individual in the organisation who is known to everyone by a nickname, or who has recently changed their name following a divorce, or marriage? As you read through each of the in-tray items you must always be mindful of the minor details it contains and check that they are accurate. You must check that names are spelt correctly and that dates used are real e.g. 30 February, 31 November.

If you are asked to assess some financial information make sure that all details you’d need to respond are detailed on your in-tray item. For example, you may be asked to solve a problem with an invoice, but the date of the order and/or the order number are missing; which makes your job difficult. You would need to ensure that the invoice you had in your in-tray was actually the one that created the problem.

Watch out for bulk filler! These are attachments, brochures and reports that are included within an in-tray item, but do not really add further information or clarity to the issue raised. You will not have enough time to review such things within the exercise framework, so don’t let yourself be sidetracked by them. Remember - The assessors may be testing how easily diverted you are from important issues, so don’t fall into their trap.

Be mindful that some attachments may be the issue of the in-tray item so should not be ignored. When you are justifying your actions remember it is vital that you explain everything, even if it seems trivial to you because you do it all the time, if you don’t say you do it, how can an assessor add to your score. Remember – Your Assessor has to see or hear something in order to score it!

Also make sure that the tone of any communication is compatible with the ethos of the organisation. The item itself may be insignificant or unimportant, but the tone of the item may need to be addressed. You must also be able to show that you are understanding and empathetic with others. If you come across as totally focused on getting the job done it may be detrimental. Remember - View your actions in the context of the role you are performing in this in-tray exercise.

If you have followed our advice of dealing with the most important (to the job specification) and urgent items first, then these remaining items will not be critical. You should try to have an action for each item. When you walk away from the test area make sure that your desk looks tidy and organised as this will also send a message about your approach to the assessors. 

You may also be interested in Introduction, Maximizing Your Score, Justifying Your Decisions, Explaining Your Answers.


Pass the In-Tray Exercise