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Career Advice

How to Handle an In-tray Exercise

How to handle an in-tray exerciseComputer_keyboard

Now that you are reading this tips post, we are fairly certain that you will fall into one of two categories. Some of you will have had the unhappy experience of undertaking an in-tray exercise and some of you will be scratching your head wondering what on earth we are tallking about!

Perhaps a little explanation is called for at this point.


What is an in-tray exercise?


Papers; clipped papers; books; bundle of papers,stationaryAn in-tray exercise is a kind of assessment which sometimes forms part of the recruitment process and usually takes place within an assessment centre. It is intended to test the way in which you will be able to handle the typical tasks which will occur within your role on a regular basis, how well you can prioritise your workload and how efficiently you can work through a set number of tasks within a certain time-frame.


Within the exercise you will be presented with a typical work scenario, for example “It is a Monday morning at 9am, you have arrived at your desk to find some paperwork which needs to be completed”.  Within this paperwork you may find phone messages, memos, letters, documents, reports and as if all of that wasn’t enough fun, most in-tray exercises now also include an e-tray element with emails, online calendar and other computer programs needing attention.

At the beginning of the exercise you will need to swiftly read through all of the information and begin to organise the tasks depending on their action and then explain what type of action is required and how you will deal with each situation.

5 Top tips for in-tray exercises

  • One of the most important skills that you need to exhibit during an in-tray exercise is prioritisation. You must first quickly (but very accurately) read all of the information which has been provided to you and then immediately address anything which needs urgent attention. Then you should prioritise the other tasks which need to be completed in order of urgency and begin to work through them. It is important to consider each task very carefully and weigh up importance – for example a telephone call about health and safety is much more urgent than one about a payroll issue.
  • It is often the case that after an in-tray exercise you will attend an interview in which you may have to justify the decisions which you made during said in-tray exercise.  Therefore you must make sure that you will be able to describe your decision making process and justify the way in which you have prioritised the workload.

  • Manage your time – within an in-tray exercise, you must work quickly, but you should not rush it. This may seem like a contradiction in terms but the key is managing your time.  Identify how long each task should take to complete and complete it within that timeframe. Remember that it is unlikely to be an immediate failure if you do not complete the exercise, but it may be an immediate failure if you make a telephone interviewmajor mistake in haste.

  • Remember that within the scenario of the exercise you may have the opportunity to delegate tasks to more junior or more senior members of staff.  If you do this it is really important to ensure that the tasks are suitable for the person to whom you have passed them.

  • Using a narrative writing style within an exercise such as this is a waste of time – bullet points or a numbered list will allow you to outline your course of action quickly and much more succinctly.

Hopefully you have found these basic tips useful and best of luck with any in-tray exercises you are asked to do!


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