assessment centre candidates tackle the in-tray exercise

What are in-tray exercises?

How would you cope on the job with an inbox full of urgent tasks and limited time? You'll need to prove that you can prioritise under pressure to impress graduate recruiters in the e-tray or in-tray exercise. Find out how.
Stay calm, read through all the info swiftly and then start to prioritise.

In-tray exercises, or the digital 'e-tray' equivalent are a test of your ability to deal with a real work scenario: requests, demands on your time, and information overload. Graduate employers include this type of business simulation within their assessment centres to test your ability to process information quickly, analyse problems, make decisions, take action, manage your time, work accurately and express yourself tactfully in a business context.

It's a typical Monday morning

The scenario will be set, for example: it's Monday morning, the work has piled up and you have to prioritise your tasks before a big meeting at 9.30 am.

You'll work at a desk with an in-tray full of typical paperwork and be asked to work through it within a time limit (often between 30 minutes to an hour).

The items normally found in an in-tray include: phone messages, memos, letters, documents, reports, and e-mails, as well as a planner or calendar. The subject matter is usually related to the type of job you are going for.

You have to read through the information, put it in order of priority for action and then explain what type of action is required and how you will deal with each situation: return a call, forward the information to someone else, arrange a meeting, delegate work to another colleague, deal with a complaint, and so on.

Take note of the instructions you are given and read any supporting information provided. This could give you a feel for how staff within the organisation would typically interact with customers, suppliers and other employees.

When faced with a full in-tray — take action!

Read through all the correspondence swiftly before doing anything then, assess the requests. Identify those needing immediate or urgent action; those you can delegate; those you can delay; and those you may be able to drop.

For urgent tasks decide the immediate next action you need to take, but keep in mind that not all urgent tasks are important. If something is urgent but insignificant, deal with it quickly and decisively, or decide if anything actually needs to be done at all. See if you can negotiate for an extended deadline, if this is the best course of action.

For deferred tasks note how you will act on it when you have time. Identify any deadlines or further information you may need to request.

For tasks you delegate there will normally be references to whom you can do this within the correspondence you are responding to, or in any support information provided, eg an organisation/department structure.

Manage your time so that you deal with everything in your in-tray, but don't rush and miss key information or act in a way that conflicts with a decision you need to take on another in-tray item. As well as keeping track of real time, take note of the dates on which e-mails or letters were sent. Remember that assessors want you to identify essential, key points rather than over analyse information and get overwhelmed by detail. At times you will have to make a judgement call based on what's available, even though it may not seem complete.

The digital upgrade: e-tray exercises

Some employers use an 'e-tray exercise', which is the same as an in-tray exercise but uses an e-mail inbox. You work at a computer dealing with e-mails. Like the paper equivalent, these will be a mix of requests, memos, phone messages and information. Some e-tray exercise e-mails have a multiple choice selection of actions to choose from or potential answers to a simple calculation that has been requested.

The principles for tackling e-trays are the same as those for the traditional in-tray: read through all the information available, and decide on the priority and actions for each piece of correspondence.

Put it in writing, business style

You may be asked draft an appropriate response to an e-mail or letter in your in-tray/inbox. This is to test your writing skills.

  • Your written response has to be in a style that is appropriate to the recipient. Keep it professional (no Hiya's, thanx or gr8).
  • Work out an outline of what you want to say, and the points you need to make and in what order.
  • Keep it concise and use bullet points. Beautifully crafted prose isn't expected: just good, clear, plain English.
  • Draft your response and read it through carefully so that you can re-edit it for length and check your spelling and grammar: don't rely on a spell checker being available.
  • Read it through again before you click 'send'.

Prepare for in-tray exercises

However an in-tray or e-tray exercise is structured you are aiming to work calmly under pressure and make the best decisions you can with the information you are given. There are rarely right or wrong answers. To prepare, visit your university's careers service to see if it runs mock in-tray exercise sessions; search online to find current business e-mail etiquette and time management tips; and re read the research you have done on the employer so that you understand its business. You can also practise for in-tray exercises online.