How should I approach the in-tray exercise?

In most in-tray exercise  you will be provided with an overview of an organisation and your role within it. Some assessment centre include the reading of these items and all overview details as part of the allocated time for reading through the documents included in the exercise, whilst others give you 5-10 minutes to read the overview before presenting you with the in-tray items. The time allocated will vary depending on the particular exercise but it is usually somewhere between 20-60 minutes.

When you have worked through the in-tray items you will then be given a series of multiple choice questions and an answer sheet. For more senior positions the two parts are often followed by a third section which provides you with an opportunity to explain your chosen answers to the assessors face-to-face.

The in-tray exercises or in-basket exercise is designed so that anyone can undertake the exercise and have equal opportunity to produce maximum marks. You do not need to have specialised knowledge of the market sector or industry as all the information required to make a decision and select one of the multiple choice answers is provided in the overview documentation. Many of the tests in the instructions will tell you to use only the information provided in the exercise.

The most important aspect of the in-tray exercise is to ensure you have fully understood the role you are playing and the objectives of the organisation. Secondly, it is vital that you pay attention to the small details as the authors of the exercise have often included incorrect dates for meetings, old correspondence, missed spelt names and created double bookings to test this skill. It is these small details which are influential in why you select certain options in the answers and are often during test exercises to show you why a certain answer reflects poorly on your skills and lack of attention to detail. It is these small details which are useful to bring out in a discussion or justification if this is part of your in-tray exercise.

This type of exercise provides all the information they require you to evaluate and use when making your decision. Beware of bringing in additional information from your own experience as this may cause you to over complicate the issue being presented in the in-tray item or document. For example, the items show that you have problems with a member of staff, when a questions ask about the individual be wary of trying to solve this problem.

The question may be asking how you would prioritise the urgency of addressing this issue compared with others raised during the exercise. It could also be asking whether or not you would deal with it personally.

Different questions will test your ability, in terms of:

  • Clear decision making
  • Man-management
  • Focus on results
  • Generate good working relationships
  • Prioritisation
  • Organisational importance
  • Evaluate information
  • Project management
  • Create motivated teams


The exercise is looking at how effectively you can evaluate information, priorities any required actions and decide on a final outcome, it is not looking for a solution. It is also assessing how well you work under pressure and with minimal information.

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Pass the In-Tray Exercise