What are in-tray exercises?
In-tray exercises, or the digital e-tray equivalent, are a test of your ability to deal with a real work scenario: multiple requests, different demands on your time and information overload. You will be given an outline scenario giving you some background, and will then have to decide to respond to new information in the form of emails, meeting requests and so on.
You might be set an in-tray or e-tray exercise at an assessment centre or even earlier: while submitting your online application (it may be one of the graduate recruiter’s online ability tests or job simulation exercises).
Here is our at-a-glance example of an in-tray exercise.
You are given your brief…
What to take from this? You can delegate tasks to the marketing administrator. You are answerable to the directors and chief executive, so keep them in mind when making important decisions. Make a note that it is Thursday afternoon and your manager is away until Monday.
An email arrives in your inbox...
- Send your work with a covering note saying 'As requested'
- Ask to delay sending the findings until Monday when Matt returns and can sign off your work
- Send your work to Tania, copying in Matt, and adding a covering note to explain that these initial findings haven't yet been approved by Matt
- Ask Julia Winterson to review your work before sending it to Tania?
The difficulty here is that this is one of your first pieces of work in your new role and it hasn’t yet been reviewed by your boss, Matt. However, the ‘top boss’, Tania, has specifically requested the work and needs it for an important meeting that takes place before Matt returns; it is therefore unlikely that this request can be delayed until after Friday. It is also unlikely that another director, Julia, would have the detailed knowledge of marketing required to check your work – so the most feasible options are either A or C. Option C allows you to give some context and explain yourself, showing that you responded to a direct request but also acknowledging that the work still requires some input.
Soon after another email arrives...
And at the same time you receive a post-it note from Vivienne...
What do you do?
The first email invitation is from Julie Winterson, the sales director, and it is an invitation to a social event that will involve your manager, Matt. You don’t need to treat this as your top priority but you should respond, confirming whether you will be able to come either just for a drink or for drinks and then dinner. If you attend the sales meeting, you might want to speak to Julia about this at the end of the meeting.
The meeting is a good opportunity for you to attend a meeting with colleagues from other teams, absorb new information about the business and support your manager. You should attend the meeting but put on your out of office assistant and make sure Vivienne knows where to find you. You can also delegate the photocopying to her.
Other example practice tests
You can access practice in-tray exercises (both free and paid-for) via our commercial partner AssessmentDay. In addition to assessment and online test companies, you can also usually find practice tests on the graduate recruitment websites of employers that use them (such as The Civil Service Fast Stream) or via careers services.
To start with, you are usually given a scenario such as:
- you are (for example) head of marketing and returning to work after a holiday
- you are deputising for your boss, who is away, and are required to handle their workload in their absence
- you are joining the company as a new recruit and have to undergo an induction alongside dealing with a ‘work crisis’
- you are working in the role that you’ve applied for.
You will then be confronted with a lot of information. If it is an e-tray exercise, this will be in the form of multiple emails (with attachments), MS Outlook meeting requests and instant chat messages. If it is an in-tray exercise, it is likely that you will be given a lot of information on paper documents, printed out emails, post-its and diaries/calendars.
In either format, you might be asked to schedule meetings and attend health and safety briefings or training. You might also need to delegate tasks to team members, return a phone call and/or prioritise a ‘to do’ list. It’s likely, too, that you will be asked to deal with problems (such as a customer’s complaint) or advise on a business project (such as a merger).
Depending on the exercise, your task might be to do one or a combination of the following:
- pick your preferred action/response from a multiple choice list
- rank a selection of possible responses/actions from ‘most effective’ to ‘least effective’
- prioritise a ‘to do’ list, also outlining what you would act on first and explaining why (either in written form or face-to-face in an interview)
- write an email in response to one or more of the items.
In-tray and e-tray exercises are timed, usually ranging from anywhere between 30 minutes to 80 minutes. If you need extra time due to a disability, this can usually be arranged if raised in advance or flagged on the application form.
Take note of the instructions and read any supporting information. Then read through all the correspondence before doing anything.
For each task, your main options are to:
- Take immediate or urgent action
- Delegate it
- Delay it or defer it
- Drop it.
Being alert to any deadlines and the dates on which emails and so on were sent will help you to do this.
Remember that not all urgent tasks are important. If something is urgent but insignificant, deal with it quickly, or decide if anything actually needs to be done at all.
In some cases, certain tasks can’t be completed until other tasks have been done; bear in mind that this might change your list of priorities.
Manage your time so that you deal with everything in your in-tray or e-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 item. Assessors want you to identify essential, key points rather than get overwhelmed by detail. At times you will have to make a judgement call based on what's available, even though you might not know everything you would want to.
Use your prior research into the company and role to guide your choices. The company’s corporate values and the role’s key objectives can help you to work out the best thing to do: if, for example, one of the company’s values is respecting colleagues and clients it probably wouldn’t be a good idea not to respond to a colleague’s email.
If you have to write an email as part of the exercise, recruiters will be checking if you can express yourself tactfully in a business context.
- Make sure the tone of your email is suitable. For example, don’t use informal language if you are writing to a client or a senior member of the organisation. Review our guide to business communication and email etiquette for tips.
- 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 if appropriate. Aim for clear and 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'.
In-tray or e-tray exercises can be used to assess a range of workplace skills and competencies, listed below; click on the links to discover how to develop them.