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What is an in tray exercise? How are in-tray exercises assessed? How to pass in-tray exercises? If these are questions on your mind, look no further than this guide to accelerate your assessment centre practice.

This text goes into depth on the topic of in-tray assessments. We explain what an in tray exercise is, give an in-tray exercise example, explain how these exercises are evaluated and give some top tips to help you prepare and succeed.

We offer practice in-tray exercises on our website to help you prepare for the recruitment process. Get a head start on your preparation by practising for an in tray assessment.

Did you know? Around one third of employers use assessment centres in their application process.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, 2020)


  1. What is an in-tray exercise?
  2. What happens during an in-tray exercise?
  3. In-tray exercise example question and answer
  4. Why are in-tray assessments used at assessment centres?
  5. How are in-tray exercises assessed?
  6. What job roles, industries and companies use in-tray exercises?
  7. 7 Top tips to prepare and succeed in your in-tray exercise
  8. In-tray exercise FAQs

What is an in tray exercise?

An in-tray exercise is a simulation of a real work scenario used in the selection process for certain job roles. It’s usually conducted during an assessment centre day and aims to evaluate a candidate’s work behaviour and attitudes, such as time management and communication skills.

Good to know: The exercise is designed to provide employers with an understanding of the candidate’s work style and how they handle tasks. We also provide information further down on how employers use these to assess candidates

What will the in-tray exercise involve?

Candidates will be asked to treat the in tray exercise as a role-playing scenario. They will be given a set of simulated documents, such as emails, letters, memos and reports, to review and respond to within a specified time frame.

We understand the importance of being well-prepared for an in-tray exercise. That’s why we offer practice in tray assessments to help you hone your skills and feel confident on the day of the real assessment.

What happens during an in-tray exercise?

  1. For the majority of in tray exercises, you will typically be given the following information:
    • Role description or brief: A scenario or context describing the role and responsibilities of the individual in the simulated work environment
    • Tasks: A set of tasks or documents related to the role, such as emails, memos, reports, or other information
    • Instructions: Specific instructions or questions to guide the individual in completing the tasks
    • A list: A list of key staff and employees that you may need to contact or interact with during the exercise
    • A calendar of the upcoming months
    • Time frame: A timeline or deadline for completion of the tasks
    • Evaluation criteria: what the assessor will be looking for.
  1. During the in-tray assessment, you are presented with a set of simulated documents such as emails, letters, and reports that simulate a typical day’s work in the role. These documents may contain information about various tasks, projects, and issues that the candidate is expected to handle.

Good to know: The number of in-tray items you will be given in an in-tray exercise can vary depending on the specific scenario and the role you are simulating. It could be anywhere from a few items to a large number of tasks or documents to manage within a set time frame.

  1. The in-basket assessment is typically carried out through a multiple choice questionnaire, or a multiple choice questionnaire and an interview with an assessor for the candidate to elaborate on their decisions.
  1. The information given to you is designed with the necessary context, materials, and guidance to complete the in-tray exercise effectively and accurately. The goal of the exercise is to assess your ability to perform the specific tasks and responsibilities of the role being simulated.

What is the difference between an e tray and an in tray exercise?

The table below outlines the key differences between in-tray and e-tray assessments.

Good to know: In-tray exercises and e-tray exercises are similar in that they both assess the candidate’s ability to handle real-work scenarios. However, the main difference is that an in-tray exercise involves a physical set of documents, whereas an e-tray exercise involves a virtual set of documents. 

In-Tray ExerciseE-Tray Exercise
Involves a physical set of documents such as emails, letters, and reports that the candidate must review and respond to.Involves a virtual set of documents such as emails, letters, and reports that the candidate must review and respond to via a computer or other electronic device.
Typically conducted in a physical location, such as an assessment centre.Typically conducted online or remotely, via a computer or other electronic device.
Assesses the candidate’s ability to handle physical documents, prioritise tasks and make decisions in a physical environment.Assesses the candidate’s ability to handle virtual documents, prioritise tasks, and make decisions in a virtual environment.
Allows for face-to-face interaction with assessors and a direct observation of a candidates behaviour and communication skillsLack of face-to-face interaction with assessors
Can require travel and accommodation costs for candidates and assessorsMore cost-effective compared to in-tray exercises

Will I be given an in-tray or an e-tray exercise?

In-tray or E-tray assessments will be dependent on the specific criteria of the organisation and the role the candidate is being assessed for. When choosing to administer either an in-tray or e-tray assessment, the employer will take into consideration if:

  • the job role will be remote or in the office
  • the most cost effective method for the company
  • the candidate’s preference or familiarity with each method

Good to know: If cost is not a factor and you will be working in the office full time, the in tray exercise will most likely be used.

In Tray Exercise Example Question and Answer

Below is an example of an in-tray exercise that you could be faced with at an assessment centre.

In-tray filing example
In-Tray Filing Example
Source : FreePik

You are a manager at a consulting firm. You have just returned from a meeting and have been given an in-tray of documents to review and respond to. The documents include:

  • A client proposal for a new project.
  • An email from a senior partner requesting a summary of market research on a potential investment opportunity.
  • An email from your boss asking for a report on the current budget status to be sent to the CEO by the end of the day.
  • An email from HR requesting your availability for an interview with a potential new hire next week.
  • A memo from the HR department regarding upcoming team-building activities.
  • A memo from the finance department providing an update on expenses for the current quarter.
  • A report on the firm’s recent financial performance.

You have 2 hours to complete this in tray exercise. Your objective is to demonstrate your ability to prioritise tasks, make decisions, and take action.  

You must:

Go through your in-tray and decide how you would respond, make decisions and take action:

  1. Review the client proposal and provide feedback on the feasibility and potential return on investment of the project.
  1. For the report on the current budget status, gather the necessary information and compile a report to send to the CEO by the end of the day.
  1. For the email from the senior partner, conduct market research on the potential investment opportunity and provide a summary in an email to the senior partner.
  1. For the email from HR regarding the interview, respond to confirm your availability.
  1. For the memo from the finance department regarding expenses, review and note the information for future reference.
  1. Respond to the HR department’s memo by suggesting an activity for the team-building event and volunteering to assist in organising it.
  1. Review the report on the firm’s financial performance and provide suggestions for improving financial performance in the future.

You should prioritise your tasks based on urgency and importance:

Report on current budget to send to CEO by end of the dayHighHigh
Email from senior partner requesting a summary of market researchHighHigh
Client proposal for a new project LowHigh
Email from HR regarding an interview with a potential new hire LowHigh
Memo from HR regarding upcoming team-building activitiesLowLow
Memo from finance department regarding expenses update LowLow
Report on the firm’s recent financial performanceLowLow
Assessment Criteria

What do employers look for in in-tray exercises?

The assessors will be evaluating your ability to:

  • Analyse information
  • Provide recommendations
  • Communicate effectively
  • Prioritise tasks
  • Time management
  • Attention to detail

You will be assessed on the quality of your responses, the format in which they are written, and your ability to follow the instructions given. This assessment will be timed and you will be evaluated on your ability to manage your time effectively and stay focused throughout the assessment. 

In-Tray Exercise tip: It is important to prioritise your tasks in order to demonstrate time management and organisational skills. Click here for more information on what assessors are looking for.

How to answer an in-tray exercise

Here is a useful table that you can use to help with organising and delegating your tasks during an in tray assessment: 

High Priority / UrgentLow Priority / Not Urgent
ImportantThese tasks require immediate attention and have a deadline or consequences if not completed. They are considered the highest urgency.These tasks are important but not time-sensitive. They should be completed after the urgent and important tasks, but not neglected.
Not ImportantThese tasks are time-sensitive but not as critical as the tasks in the first category. They should be delegated or completed efficiently if possibleThese tasks are low priority and unlikely to have a significant impact. They can be postponed or delegated to someone else.

Good to know: This table should be used as a general guide and the priority of tasks can vary depending on the specific in tray exercise and the company’s priorities and policies. Before you start, ensure to read the instructions carefully to understand the priorities of the company.

Why are in-tray exercises used at assessment centres?

In-tray exercises assess a candidate’s skills in decision-making, problem-solving, and task prioritisation in a simulated work environment. They provide a realistic representation of performance and are used alone or in assessment centres.

The in-tray exercise provides a valuable opportunity for employers to:

  • Assess the candidate’s skills and capabilities beyond what is visible on a CV/resume or during an interview.
  • Give them a chance to see first-hand how the candidate handles a stressful, fast-paced environment.
  • Observe the candidates organisational, decision-making, time-management and problem-solving skills.
  • Help to predict the candidate’s potential performance in similar real-life work scenarios, and determine whether they would be a good fit for the company.

Overall, in-tray exercises play a crucial role in the assessment centre process. They provide a practical and realistic approach to evaluating a candidate’s potential performance in the workplace. Employers can then use this information to make informed hiring decisions, ensuring that they bring on board the right candidate for the job.

In-tray prioritise example
In-Tray Prioritise Example
Source : FreePik

How are in-tray exercises assessed?

Are you preparing for an assessment centre and wondering what will be expected of you? 

Top 9 Skills Measured using In-Tray Exercises

Here’s a rundown of what skills and abilities the in-tray exercise will measure:

  1. Prioritisation 
    • The ability to prioritise tasks based on their urgency and importance, making sure that the most critical tasks are completed first.
  1. Attention to detail 
    • The ability to pay close attention to details and to complete tasks thoroughly and accurately, ensuring high-quality results.
  1. Communication 
    • The ability to exchange information and ideas effectively and be able to interact with others in a professional manner when responding to requests and providing information.
  1. Time management 
    • The ability to manage time effectively, meet deadlines, balance multiple tasks and responsibilities effectively.
  1. Problem-solving 
    • The ability to solve problems and make decisions using creativity, critical thinking, and sound judgement, even in situations where there is limited information.
  1. Adaptability
    • The ability to adjust to changing situations, work under pressure and handle multiple tasks and responsibilities at the same time.
  1. Organisational skills
    • The ability to effectively plan, organise, and manage multiple tasks and resources effectively, resulting in efficient and productive work.
  1. Written communication skills 
    • The ability to effectively communicate and express ideas, thoughts, and information clearly and concisely in written form, such as in email, reports, or memos.
  1. Delegation 
    • The ability to distribute tasks and responsibilities to others effectively, maximising the use of resources and ensuring timely completion of tasks.

Due to the in-tray test being timed, effective time management and being able to stay focussed is key. The duration of an in-tray assessment can vary depending on the specific scenario and the number of tasks or documents to be managed. 

In-tray time management example
In-tray Time Management Example
Source : FreePik

Good to know: Practice makes perfect, and with our in-tray exercises, you can perfect your time management skills before the real assessment. 

Utilise a stopwatch or timer to track the time you spend on each task. This simple yet effective strategy will help you optimise your time and ensure that you have enough time to complete all tasks during the actual assessment. 

What job roles, industries and companies use in-tray exercises?

Job Roles that Use In-Tray Exercises

In-tray exercises are commonly used as part of the assessment centre process for a variety of job roles. A few of the most common roles that in-tray exercises are used for are management, administrative, customer service, project management and public sector roles.

Industries that Use In-Tray Exercises

In-tray exercises are used in a variety of industries, including:

IndustryRoles in the industry where in-tray is an effective assessment 
FinanceFinancial analysts, bankers, and traders
HealthcareNurses, healthcare administrators, and medical billing specialists.
GovernmentIn the public sector for positions such as government administrators, civil servants, and diplomatic corps.
ConsultingManagement consultants, business analysts, and project managers
LegalParalegals, legal administrators, and legal executives.
Companies that Use In-Tray Exercises

In-tray tests are used by a number of companies, including:

In conclusion, in tray exercises are widely used by employers globally to evaluate a candidate’s skills and abilities. From management and administrative roles to finance, healthcare, government, consulting, and legal positions, in-tray exercises are an essential tool in the assessment centre process for many organisations.

7 Top tips to prepare and succeed in your in-tray exercise

Are you preparing for an in-tray exercise and want to make a lasting impression? Here are 7 top tips to help you succeed your in-tray exercise:

  1. Research the company and the role: Familiarise yourself with the company’s values, goals, and expectations to showcase your knowledge and understanding.
  1. Prepare for the types of tasks: Get a feel for the types of tasks you may face during the in-tray exercise and prepare yourself to handle them effectively, as well as the common scenarios that may arise, such as conflict resolution and handling urgent requests. You can do this through your own research and by practising an in-tray assessment to increase your familiarity.
  1. Sharpen your decision-making skills: The exercise is designed to test your ability to make decisions quickly and effectively, so practise making decisions under time pressure.
  1. Communicate effectively: Strong communication skills are key to success in an in-tray exercise, so make sure to practise writing clear and concise emails, memos, letters etc.
  1. Stay calm and focused:  In-tray exercises can be stressful, so it’s essential to stay calm and focused. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that you are well-prepared for this task.
  1. Make informed decisions: Use the information available to make informed decisions quickly and effectively, you can do this by reviewing all the documents, emails, and other materials provided in the in-tray exercise to have a clear understanding of the task at hand.
    • Identify which tasks are the most pressing and prioritise them based on urgency and importance. Then, evaluate the information available and assess the situation to determine the best course of action. Once you have all the information, you can make a confident and informed decision.
  1. Seek clarification: If you are unsure of the instructions or requirements for a task, don’t hesitate to seek clarification. This helps ensure that you are on the right track and shows your initiative. 

When it’s time for the exercise, make sure to prioritise tasks, stay organised, communicate clearly, manage your time and evaluate your work. By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to acing your in-tray exercise.

Discover the answers to frequently asked questions about in-tray exercises with this insightful FAQ section below.

In-tray exercise FAQs

What tasks are included in an in-tray exercise?

Tasks in an in-tray exercise can include:

  • Emails
  • Memos
  • Letters
  • Reports
  • Responding to requests
  • Resolving conflicts 
  • Managing decisions.

What skills are tested in an in-tray exercise?

During an in tray exercise the candidate will be assessed on their ability to handle tasks and responsibilities professionally and effectively. They will do this by testing a range of skills, including time management, decision-making, prioritisation, written communication, problem-solving, and adaptability under pressure.

How do I approach an in-tray assessment?

  1. Show your best qualities: Demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and attitudes that align with the job role to impress the assessor.
  1. Use helpful tools: Bring stationery such as paper, pens, post-it notes, highlighters, and a calculator to the exercise to help you stay organised and focused.
  1. Develop a system: Practise in-tray exercises so you can come up with an efficient system for categorising and prioritising tasks.

What is the difference between an in-tray and in-basket exercise?

An in-tray exercise and an in-basket exercise are similar assessments and assess similar skills, however, an in tray exercise focuses on tasks completed in its own workspace (e.g. email management). Whereas, in-basket exercise also focuses on tasks in a shared workspace (e.g. phone calls, inter-department communication).

Practice and Register with GF to ace your in tray assessments first time

Do you want to pass your in-tray exercises first time? Sign up for tools offered by GF, the only aptitude practice test experts that provide tests to over 100 UK universities and their students, and also across Asia and continental Europe.

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