Updated October 26, 2021
In-tray exercises assess practical skills during the hiring process.
An in-tray test helps employers test a candidate's skills and aptitudes in areas relevant to their applied job role.
An e-tray or inbox exercise is an online version of the in-tray test.
Nowadays, most information arrives by email rather than post; therefore, e-tray tests provide a realistic reflection of the work environment.
An in-tray exercise is a simple way to discover how a candidate will react to workplace pressures.
They are a valuable indication of future behavior. In-tray tests often provide a more accurate assessment than recruitment interviews or psychometric testing.
If you are applying for jobs, you will likely have to complete an in-tray exercise.
It is essential that you understand how in-tray tests are structured and what they test.
Practicing in-tray test examples will familiarize you with the format and perfect your in-tray test technique.
In-tray exercises usually take place during the formal interview stage.
An in-tray test assesses more than whether you complete every task.
It is essential that you prioritize your workload appropriately while planning to complete all tasks within the timescale.
Therefore, you will need to analyze all the supporting information given. It will help you decide which tasks are most urgent.
Accuracy is essential, too; therefore, you will need to work while paying close attention to detail quickly.
An in-tray test assesses:
- Organizational abilities, including prioritization and time management
- Ability to analyze and interpret information
- Interpersonal and communication skills, including effective written communication
- Ability to delegate appropriately
The method of assessment for an in-tray exercise will vary, depending on the format of the test.
For example, some organizations favor multiple-choice responses. In contrast, others will expect you to verbally explain your actions and justify your decisions.
In some cases, a combination of these assessment methods will be used.
Before beginning the assessment, determine how the test will be assessed and whether you are permitted to make marks on your paperwork.
If you do not have the chance to discuss your answers with an assessor, write down your rationale for each decision and give as much information as possible.
It would help if you recorded any considerations you make regarding diary conflicts, time constraints or lack of resources.
You will also need to demonstrate the appropriate skills and level of expertise for the job role you have applied for.
If the organization uses in-tray justification sessions, you will need to explain your actions and decisions to the assessor in a face-to-face setting.
This is your opportunity to explain how you prioritized the tasks and highlight how your chosen method was in line with the organization's mission and values.
As part of the justification session, the assessor will be considering your assertion skills and how you respond to criticism.
It is essential to avoid being defensive or unwilling to consider other ways of doing things.
Your answers will tell the assessor more about your overall flexibility and whether you are motivated by team working or results.
You may be required to reflect on the exercise and whether you might approach things differently if you were requested to complete it again.
It is essential to respond honestly; however, be prepared to share the reasons for your answer.
The company you applied for will provide you with a brief description of a potential scenario that you could experience in the job role.
Suppose you are applying for a team administration role. In that case, the in-tray scenario is likely to highlight situations where teamwork, communication, and interpersonal skills are essential.
Suppose you are applying for a leadership or management role.
In that case, the scenario will probably be linked with the need for leadership, problem-solving, and delegation abilities.
When applying for senior management or strategic role, you can expect the in-tray assessment to be longer and more complex than if you were applying for an entry-level position.
For example, you may be expected to convey your responses in writing rather than verbally.
In some cases, the in-tray assessment can be up to three hours long.
Try not to worry if the brief seems unrelated to the industry you are applying to work in.
For example, you could be asked to imagine it is your first day as an office manager, even though you have applied for a completely different job.
Remember that the in-tray assessment is designed to evaluate your key competencies, regardless of the job role you are asked to role play in the test.
It is important to familiarize yourself with all of the information provided. It will help you prioritize tasks effectively.
You should study the job description or person specification to remind yourself of the knowledge, abilities, and behaviors the recruiter is looking for.
This information should be considered as you work through the in-tray assessment.
You will usually be presented with between 10 and 30 in-tray tasks, along with a description of your fictional role and responsibilities.
The in-tray tasks could be meeting requests, emails, reports, telephone calls, or complaints.
To complete the assessment, you will need to consider the scenario, review the tasks and prioritize them appropriately.
In addition to the scenario and task list, you may also be given:
- An overview of your fictional job role and general responsibilities
- Aims and objectives of the fictional organization
- An organizational chart showing where your role fits into the team, for example, whom you report to and who reports to you
- A list of other job roles you will work closely with
- A diary or schedule detailing commitments over the next quarter
Some in-tray assessments have an underlying central theme, which you will be expected to recognize and identify.
Being able to highlight an imminent organizational change, such as re-structuring a team or merging with another business, will show you a clear understanding of your fictional role and the industry in general.
This knowledge will also inform your decisions and enable you to prioritize effectively with the broader business in mind.
Skim through all of the in-tray items before you attempt to answer any questions. It will ensure you do not miss something important.
Make notes or use highlighters to color-code each item as you read through. However, do not be tempted to respond to an item before you have read through everything.
Items you read afterward may be more urgent or essential, and the order you choose to complete tasks will have a bearing on your results.
Organize the tasks in a way that you find helpful – this could be alphabetical, by date, or according to the topic.
You may wish to line the tasks horizontally, moving high priority tasks up and low priority tasks down.
Consider which items impact other tasks and use a system to highlight this, for example, colored pens or sticky notes.
If a task has already been completed, note this to avoid spending any further time on it.
You may wish to keep urgent tasks in a separate pile to ensure these are prioritized.
In-tray exercises have a time limit; however, it is still important to work methodically and pay attention to detail.
Highlight the names of people you will need to liaise with, double-check each task's date and deadline, and keep a record of tasks that have already been completed.
Never underestimate the importance of culture in the fictional organization being referred to in the assessment.
The actions you take and your decisions should always be in line with the organizational values and norms.
For example, if your role is working for a healthcare organization, patients or clients will need to be at the center of everything that you do.
When an assessor reviews your in-tray exercise, they can only award points for what you have written down or explained to them.
If you have decided to leave an item to return later, be sure to write this down.
Otherwise, the assessor may assume that you did not know how to approach it.
You will be expected to notice the finer details of your diary commitments, for example, the meeting start time or venue.
Avoid planning a morning meeting in one region and an afternoon meeting in another, and always remember to build in plenty of time for travel and parking.
You observe that two meetings are booked in for the same time and venue. You will, therefore, be expected to highlight this and respond appropriately.
You will be expected to prioritize tasks based not only on their perceived urgency but also on whom they originate from.
If you have been asked to provide information by a cold caller, this is unlikely to be a high priority.
But suppose you have been asked to compile a report by the managing director of your employing organization. In that case, this is likely to be at the top of your to-do list.
A time and date will mark each task in your in-tray.
Check through and highlight this information, and pay particular attention to items marked as urgent or those that have been in your inbox for some time.
To perform well, you will need to get into character and treat the in-tray exercise as a real-life work scenario.
Avoid giving 'textbook' responses to questions and focus more on how you really would behave in real-life, as this is likely to gain more points.
Think about what you would do if faced with the situation described, rather than what you think the assessor wants you to say.
Delegation is an important skill, but the amount of delegation you will do will depend on the job role in which you are employed.
For the in-tray exercise, always consider your fictional job role when delegating.
If you are role-playing an entry-level role, it is unlikely that you will be expected to delegate.
However, suppose you are role-playing a senior management role. In that case, you will probably delegate most day-to-day tasks, focusing your attention on strategic priorities.
Not delegating enough could see you losing points during the assessment.
If you delegate too much or inappropriately, however, you could lose points too.
When deciding whether to delegate, consider whether the task is suitable for your fictional role.
If you do not think it falls within the remit of your role, decide whom to delegate.
You could also consider whether you need to attend meetings in person.
Could you ask someone to attend in your place?
Or could the meeting be held virtually or via telephone?
Being able to identify tasks where it is essential to attend in person is necessary.
To perform well in an in-tray test, you must show that you can:
- Organize, understand and analyze complex information while working to a tight timescale
- Identify relevant issues or problems, explore solutions and prioritize your workload appropriately
- Use practical communication skills to inform others of your decisions
- Identify and resolve problems that may crop up during the exercise
- Communicate your actions and explain why you made particular decisions
To receive credit for your responses, you will need to show the assessor precisely what you know.
You must justify your actions and decision-making process, either in the one-to-one session following the assessment or by writing clear notes.
Your attitude to work will also be assessed.
Be mindful of how you portray yourself during the exercise, for example:
- Keep your workspace organized and tidy
- Ensure notes are written up neatly
- Try to remain calm and collected throughout the assessment