Why employers use in-tray exercises

In-tray exercises are work simulation assessments, requiring a candidate to assume the role of an employee at a fictitious organisation. Candidates will be presented with a workplace scenario, which is usually a return from a holiday or break, requiring the candidate to catch up on work which has built up.

In-tray exercises are highly workplace relevant, and provide organisations with useful insights into how candidates might make judgements and decisions in the workplace. Candidates will receive a stack of documents to be addressed, requiring them to prioritise items and suggest actions. Similarly, in-tray exercises enable employing organisations to assess key competencies of the role, such as:

  • Attention to detail
  • Judgement
  • Delegation
  • Customer service
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Organisational skills
  • Time management
  • Initiative
  • Decision making
  • Problem solving
  • Numerical analysis
  • Written communication.

In-tray exercises are a versatile method of assessing relevant skills in a workplace-relevant context, giving organisations an accurate indication of a candidate’s skills and abilities.


The best way to understand what a real in-tray exercise will be like, and to prepare for taking the assessment, is to practice. Download these free PDF documents and take the exercise yourself.



How difficult are in-tray exercises?

With strict time limits and challenging workplace scenarios, in-tray exercises can be one of the more difficult selection procedures for most candidates. Often, an in-tray exercise may last for over an hour, and require candidates to employ myriad skills in order to perform well.

Candidates may be required to make numerical calculations, draft written responses to documents, prioritise tasks and decide upon courses of action, which all require significant input from the candidate. However, in some circumstances there may not be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer; it may that the candidate simply needs to show evidence that they understand the issues and can propose a sensible course of action. Due to the workplace relevance of in-tray exercises, organisations often put significant emphasis on the in-tray exercise as a selection procedure, making performance in this exercise a high priority.

In-tray exercise advice

The following tips and advice can help ensure maximum performance on your in-tray exercise, and help you approach them with confidence:

1) Follow the instructions: Although it may sound simple, critical information is presented in the instructions, and candidates are well advised to read this information thoroughly. Misreading the time limit, or exercise deliverables for example, could have a devastating effect on your performance. Everything you need to know in order to complete the exercise will be provided to you: it is in your interest to thoroughly read it.

2) Stay calm: Nervousness and anxiety are very commonly associated with in-tray exercises and psychometric testing, however excess anxiety will only serve to hamper performance. Various steps to help put your mind at ease include thorough practice beforehand, showing up to the assessment centre with ample time to spare and getting sufficient sleep the night before. Also bear in mind that employers will be looking at your overall performance in the round, not purely your score from one exercise, so don’t get too stressed about a single exercise.

3) Be mindful of time: Time management goes both ways. On one hand, you must ensure that you are able to complete the task within the given time limit; however you must simultaneously ensure accuracy. Striking the optimum balance between working swiftly and taking adequate time to accurately make decisions is the key to success at in-tray exercises.

4) Prioritisation: As well as prioritising items within the in-tray exercise, it is also necessary to prioritise your time during the exercise. Items which are clearly of lower importance should receive as little time as possible, enabling you to concentrate on making the more important decisions and judgements later on. Often deliberate red-herrings or junk mail are mixed in with the material, just as there are in real life.

5) Spelling and grammar: When drafting responses or recommendations, candidates are advised to ensure that correct spelling and grammar are used. Written communication may be a competency assessed during this exercise, and poor spelling/grammar may negatively impact your results. Devote a small amount of time to proof reading your work to help avoid these simple mistakes.

6) Commit to the role: In-tray exercises are in fact a form of role-play exercise. You undertake the role of an employee at an organisation, and are given a specific context in which you need to work i.e. coming back from a holiday and needing to catch up on work. Committing to this role and staying in character can aid your performance, helping you to make decisions in smooth, natural manner. If you really believe you are in the fictional role, you are more likely to think about the problems proactively, rather than in the abstract.

In-tray versus e-tray exercises

Although in-tray exercises and e-tray exercises assess a similar set of competencies, they differ significantly in format and delivery. The difference between e-tray exercises and in-tray exercises is that e-tray exercises are in computerised, online format, whereas in-tray exercises are purely pencil and paper format. For an in-tray exercise, candidates are provided with a stack of paper documents which require addressing or prioritising, whereas in an e-tray exercise, candidates will be required to address electronic documents and emails, usually in the form of simulated email software. Today, e-tray exercises are far more common, due to the ubiquity of computers in the workplace, and increased convenience of assessment.


In-tray exercises are both useful for the employer, and taxing for the candidate, because they are a realistic simulation of a real-world work environment. They test how you might respond under conditions of time pressure and weighted decision making. Approach them seriously and try to imagine yourself in the fictitious work scenario.

AssessmentDay Ltd specialises in helping candidates prepare for their assessment centre exercises. For further information telephone 02071 003085 or visit their website.

About the Author

  • About Oliver Savill: Oliver Savill founded AssessmentDay, a website which uses industry-leading chartered occupational psychologists to bring you accurate practice versions of the tests used by recruiters.

Oliver Savill

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