A Guide to In-tray Exercises: Overview & Tips to Pass (2024)

In-tray exercise is an assessment tool often used in the assessment center round of the recruitment process. The candidates take the test to demonstrate their workplace behaviors and reactions to work scenarios.

This article will bring an overview of the in-tray exercises - definition, assessment criteria, formats with examples, and tips to ace your in-tray exercises.

What is in-tray exercise?

In-tray exercise is a work-simulation assessment test. These exercises ask the candidate to go through several workplace scenarios with a pre-assigned employee role at an imaginative organization. The primary goal behind in-tray activities is to immerse you in a realistic yet simulated work environment and examine your workplace behavior and attitudes in the given context.

In-tray exercises often take place in the assessment center round of public-service organizations (medical, education, etc.) - including NHS. The in-tray exercises are used to assess candidates for positions such as administrators, and receptionists.


What is assessed in the in-tray exercise?

The in-tray exercise is frequently customized to the position you are looking for and allows employers to evaluate how you manage big volumes of information, different activities, and time constraints. It will demonstrate your ability to manage your time effectively, prioritize your task, identify critical issues, and resolve problems. It is best for the candidates to demonstrate these qualities during their in-tray exercise assessment. 


In-tray exercise format

The assessment has two types of format: in-tray exercise (paper-based) and e-tray exercise (computer-based).

  • In-tray exercises are paper-based and must be completed in person, usually at an assessment center.
  • E-tray exercises are computer-based and can be completed at home or in the assessment.

The duration of the in-tray exercise ranges from 30 minutes to three hours. A normal in-tray exercise will provide you with between 12 and 30 in-tray items to prioritize and respond to - including printed emails, spreadsheets, calendars, and post-it notes. In the documents, the candidateswill be presented with a workplace scenario - usually catching up on the built-up work after a vacation or break They will need to decide how to deal with each task, whether that’s returning a call, scheduling a meeting, responding to an email, or delegating tasks to another staff member

You will also be given a full brief and background information to support your conclusions, which will normally include:

  • Your duties and role
  • The main concerns and goals of the firm
  • A list of the employees for whom you are accountable, as well as other important colleagues and supporting departments
  • A list of third-party contacts and your connections with them.
  • A business calendar for the following two to three months.

The common task the test takers will need to tackle in the in-tray exercise are:

  • Choose your response from a list of multiple-choice options
  • Rank a list of responses from “most effective” to “least effective”
  • Order and arrange the priority of the tasks in a to-do list.
  • Prepare a written response

Here is an example of the brief you will receive in the


How to approach the in-tray exercise

The in-tray exercise requires the candidates to have careful preparation in order to have the best performance. Here is the 5-step guide for you.

Step 1: Understand the employer and the role you’re applying for

Knowing what the positions and the employers expect from you as a candidate is vital to help you demonstrate your qualities closer to the expectations during the in-tray exercise. The tip for you is to do research on your job descriptions (the skills and attributes required) and company values. Consider what the employer wants from the ideal employee and keep these points in mind as you go through the documents.

Step 2: Develop your own style for the in-tray exercise

You have to show a consistent “style” - or in other words, consistent behavioral traits during your in-tray exercises assessment. Presenting consistent traits helps your qualities be observed easier by recruiters; hence, increasing the chance that you “check” the boxes of a qualified candidate.

There are some tools to help you identify your working style, which you can utilize as the foundation for your answer during the in-tray exercise - these tests are: MBTI, Enneagram, Big Five (personality test), DISC (communication-style test).

Step 3: Using the Eisenhower matrix to delegate tasks

The Eisenhower matrix is an excellent tool to help you group tasks based on urgency as well as identify which tasks can be delegated or left undone. There is a lot of information to work with during an in-tray exercise, and it can easily become overwhelming if you don’t have a system in place for analyzing and classifying all the different documents.

As you begin to go through each item, we suggest asking yourself the following five essential questions to help you properly prioritize them:

  • Is this something that needs your immediate attention, or can it be assigned to another member of staff?
  • Is this something that has to be done right now, or can it wait? When may it be rescheduled if it can be?
  • Is this an issue that affects the whole company, another member of the group, or a personal matter?
  • What is the deadline for this item, and does it rely on other items being completed?
  • How significant is this item in comparison to the others?

Here is an example of how you can draw the Eisenhower matrix

Step 4: Enhance fast skimming and scanning skills

Reading fast is needed for the candidates to ace the in-tray exercises. In-tray exercises come with piles of requests, emails, and post-it notes to deal with. To finish the assessment in time, the candidates need to read through the questions fast enough to solve them. We have a full article about speeding reading techniques. You can check it out.

Step 5: Improve written communication

One of the main tasks in the in-tray exercise is to write emails or messages to respond to the task.

  • Create a rough outline of what you want to say, as well as the points you need to make and in what sequence. Keep it brief and, if necessary, use bullet points.
  • Make sure your email/message has an appropriate tone to the receivers.
  • Aim for clear, simple English, and double-check your spelling and grammar.
  • Before you click “send”' go through your email/message again.

Tips to pass the in-tray exercise

There are 3 tips you should do during your in-tray exercise assessment to make sure you demonstrate your suitability for the position

Examine each question carefully

Before you start responding to any tasks, make sure you take the time to thoroughly read through all the documents you’re given – including any briefing material – and get yourself into the right mindset for a person working in this role.

You may also find it helpful to use pens and highlighters to make notes as you’re working and mark the more urgent items.

Make no assumption

Make sure you just use the data at hand when making judgments. Assessors will be interested in how effectively you evaluate the material provided and the appropriateness of your judgment depending on the situation. It is best to avoid choosing an option based on what you think is widely accepted rather than what the specific context is.

Be aware of the time limit

Create a habit of checking the time while taking the test to make sure you can go through every task in the in-tray exercise. The workload of the in-tray exercise is huge - there is a lot of information to process within a strict time limit. The assessor expects to see the candidates manage their time well to finish the tasks effectively.