In-tray exercises and their other variant, the “e-tray”, are role-playing assessment centre exercises that mimic actual workplace scenarios. You’ll be supplied with an assortment of letters, emails, and reports to recreate the demands and information overload faced by a real employee on a daily basis.
You have to read through each item, rank them according to priority, and then respond to the tasks accordingly – usually within a (pretty tight) time limit.
Graduate employers usually use this type of exercise to test your ability to process information and make decisions swiftly, as well as your ability to manage your time. Some recruiters may also use this to determine how well-suited you are to a certain role.
For instance, a candidate who is able to remain calm under duress will certainly do better at a time-sensitive position than someone who isn’t.
In-tray exercises are typically favoured by recruiters looking to fill roles in highly time-sensitive lines of work such as FMCG, supply chain, or public relations. So if the job you’re applying for requires strict adherence to schedules or deadlines, make sure you come prepared for one, just in case!
It's Monday morning, welcome back to work!
In-tray exercises are usually framed by a scenario. It could be 8.30 on a Monday morning, and you’re faced with an inbox full of paperwork that piled up over the weekend.
Or, perhaps there was some sort of crisis (e.g. a sudden spike in scheduled deliveries, reports of product contamination, a PR meltdown, etc.) and you just happen to be the unlucky employee tasked with managing it.
Whatever the case, expect a ton of information waiting for you, and limited time (usually between 30 minutes to an hour) to sort through it all and figure out a viable course of action.
You can expect to be supplied with emails, reports, forms, memos, or documents to sign. You may even have things erratically slotted into your planner, as well as phone messages just to test your alertness.
Pay attention to the instructions and supporting information given (e.g. the way they are worded or arranged), as those can sometimes hint at the company’s culture in interacting with their customers, suppliers, and other employees.
When faced with a full in-tray — take action!
Firstly, scan through all the information given so that you know exactly how many items you have to deal with. Typically, there will be no less than 20 tasks, although recruiters may add in new items as the exercise progresses.
Avoid spending too much time on any one of these items at this point of time, but make sure that you don’t miss out on important details either.
Once you have a broad idea of what you need to do, classify them according to their priorities and the type of responses. What needs immediate action, what has to be delegated, what can be delayed, or what should be dropped for now?
1. Urgent tasks: Start by dealing with the urgent matters – tasks that require your immediate attention. However, remember that not all urgent tasks are important.
Be quick and decisive with urgent but insignificant problems (e.g. Which company should we call to fix the broken toilet?), but put more thought on those that seriously affect the company (e.g. How should we respond to that batch of contaminated products?).
If you think that you need more time to consider, then try negotiating for an extended deadline instead of making haphazard decisions.
2. Deferred tasks: For tasks that you’re postponing, make a note on how you intend to go about it once you have the time. Include relevant information like the intended deadlines, as well as what other resources you’ll need in order to complete those tasks.
3. Delegated tasks: Make similar notes for the tasks that you’re planning to delegate to your “colleagues”. Normally, there will be a list of “co-workers” for you to refer to, so mention who you’re delegating the task to.
If you’re not equipped with such a list, then indicate the department instead – there should be an organisation/department structure for you to refer to. If you think it’s necessary, point out certain details that you think your “colleague” should pay special attention to as well.
Do your best to limit each task to no more than 5 to 10 minutes. Draw up a rough plan/guideline for your own reference, too, if you think you need it.
Occasionally, you may find yourself working with incomplete information. In such situations, decide if you want to ask the recruiters for clarification or if you should work based on what you know about the situation. Judgement calls can be quite risky, so be sure to identify all the essential points before you decide.
Another tip: take note of the dates on emails and documents. Those can be crucial hints as to which tasks to deal with first. Remember, recruiters will be observing and evaluating your decisions, so make sure that you are able to explain yourself when they ask.
When writing, be all SERIOUS BUSINESS
There’s no running away from drafting responses in an in-tray exercise! You may be asked to reply emails, write quick memos, or fill in reports in order to test your writing and communication skills.
- Before you draft a response, determine the style to suit the occasion and the recipient. If the recipient of your email is your superior, go with a formal tone. However, if you’re replying a colleague’s email, a friendly and warm tone may be best. That said, avoid slang, acronyms, and text speak. “Thx 4 d help lol” ain’t gonna help u!
- If you’re afraid of going off point or forgetting key facts as you write, put down all your thoughts in point form first before starting. It will help keep you on track.
- Don’t bother with fancy language – you’re working within a time limit. Just keep it simple, and stick to grammatically correct and clear English.
- Read through your drafts before sending them out to ensure everything is in order. Keep a particular eye out for spelling and grammar – spell checkers may not always be available here!
Prepare for in-tray exercises
All that said, in-tray exercises rarely have “right” or “wrong” answers. The main purpose of these exercises is to assess your time management skills and your ability to perform under pressure. Are you able to analyse things calmly and make justifiable decisions even while under a tight schedule, or will you get flustered and disoriented?
If you’re used to working with tight deadlines, more power to you! If you’re not, then try to build an immunity to panic by practising. Speak to your career advisors and ask if they run in-tray or role play practice sessions. Don’t forget to time yourself when practising!
Make sure you re-read any information you’ve collected on the employer beforehand. Those can help you understand the company culture better, and figure out how a company representative should ideally respond when faced with all those emails, documents, and tasks!