Explaining Your Answers

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.

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

Pass the In-Tray Exercise