Trial by Simulation

Recruiters want to know how their future employees will juggle tasks and deal with tricky situations, so some of them test potential staff by using in-tray exercises and case studies that simulate working life.
The gradsingapore Team

In-tray exercises

In-tray exercises test your ability to deal with a typical work situation: the full inbox.

This is an individual exercise to see if you can deal with a pressure situation as quickly and efficiently as possible, and how you go about doing so.

  • What they look like

In-tray exercises are essentially role-plays. You'll be given a scenario, and must work through an in-tray (or inbox) full of typical paperwork within a time limit (often between 30 minutes to an hour).

The items normally found in an in-tray include: phone messages, memos, letters, documents, reports, and e-mails, as well as a planner or calendar.

The subject matter is usually related to the type of job you are going for, although sometimes, prospective employers may choose to throw in curveball topics to test your knack for prioritising. 

  • What do I need to do?

You have to read through the information, put it in order of priority for action, and then explain what type of action is required and how you will deal with each situation.

You must be able to explain your decisions. Be prepared to justify your priorities, choices, and actions to your assessors.

While you'll need to deal with every item before the time limit is up, don't panic, or you'll end up making mistakes.

Take your time and read through everything carefully, but don't get overwhelmed by the details. Focus on making judgement calls based on the information you've been given.

Here's a sample of one such exercise to give you an idea of what to expect:

- First, find out where you fit in the organisation

You are the marketing manager at Sangréal, a company that manufactures and sells cosmetics and female healthcare products. Sangréal's head office is in France, and Singapore is its APAC regional headquarters.

Your boss is the marketing director, Jonathan Yong, and the managing director of the Singapore division is Christine Ang.

You are a manager, so you can delegate to others. However, you are answerable to your directors, so keep them in mind when making important decisions.

- As you open your inbox, you'll see some e-mails...

This e-mail is from your company's legal advisor. Legal action is a serious issue, so prioritise it as one of the immediate action tasks in the exercise.

Your supervisors need to know about it, but you should also show that you can deal with problems efficiently.

Check your in-tray for any relevant information you may need which could help this case, and compile all the facts you need.

Remember – you're only a marketing manager, so you're not expected to solve this on your own!

A good solution is to reply to Vanessa seeking her legal advice, and CC in your superiors, Jonathan and Christine.

Fill them in on the facts you've dug up, and offer your input on how the company can resolve this issue.


This is from one of your marketing staff. The informal tone gives you a hint of Alex's background – you've probably known him for some time now, or he wouldn't be writing to you so candidly.

It's safe to assume that you can trust his recommendations as a long-time staff member.

You'll have to make a judgement call here. Will you print at a lower cost for greater savings at the risk of compromising the quality of your billboard ads?

Will you ask your supervisor to increase your marketing budget so you can maintain the quality of the materials? You'll have to decide, and be able to justify your response to your assessors.

- At the same time, you see a post-it note from your supervisor's PA...

FYI: Aero France FR-365 delayed – plane malfunction. International marketing director only arriving on 5/10/2014 @ 4:30pm.

So your company's international marketing director has just had his/her flight to Singapore delayed. Obviously, this is not high priority, but don't get caught out – you must still deal with this.

As marketing manager, you'll probably have some meetings with this big-shot, so reschedule any appointments you may already have with him/her in your planner to match the new schedule.

If your planner is already packed with other appointments, you'll have to shuffle those around as well to make the best use of your time.  

Hopefully by now, this gives you some idea of how to deal with such exercises: just think logically about the size and importance of the task, and about your position within the company.

Case studies

Case study exercises can be for individuals or groups.

You will usually be given some information about a work-related scenario and asked to imagine that you’re part of a group of experts giving advice to a client/superior on the basis of the evidence.

This will probably be carried out over a period of a few hours, and you are likely to have to make a presentation to the assessors at the end.

You may also be drip-fed additional information to assess and respond to at specific intervals throughout the allocated time.

Case studies are particularly popular in assessment centres for graduate jobs in banking, financial services, accountancy and management consulting, but they can also be part of assessments for other business sectors and industries.

It's important to note that they are typically based on real-life business developments.

• You'll be given a problem to solve...

The following example is based off a genuine case study used by an investment bank. It should give you some idea of what to expect:

- The scenario:

A large publisher of magazines and books is looking to make a significant acquisition. It has identified a target company and approached a number of investment banks for their views on the merits of a potential deal and a target price.

Based on these presentations, the publisher will decide whether to proceed with a bid and, if so, select one bank to act as their advisor.

- The task: 

Your team is one of the investment banks bidding to win the mandate. You need to analyse the figures provided, to review the marketplace, your potential client (the publisher) and the target company.

You must also prepare a five-minute presentation giving your recommendations (e.g. whether to go ahead, go ahead only under specific conditions, etc.).

You may either be provided with a wealth of raw data alongside the scenario, or you and your group may have to dig up all the necessary information by yourselves somehow.

Either way, you'll need to crystallise all these information into a workable action plan that you can present to your assessors.

• Can I practise for these?

The good news is: yes, you can! Here are some ways you can prepare for case studies:

  • Find out about the kind of business decisions the company you're applying with has to make, or has made recently. Remember – real-life situations may feature in the case study!
  • You'll need a bird's-eye view of the current economic environment. Read the business pages of newspapers or magazines to get a feel for current business activity.
  • Practise your mental arithmetic, as you may have to demonstrate your quantitative abilities without a calculator.
  • Check with your university careers services. They may run workshops or relevant presentations on case studies. Join any practice sessions they host until you become familiar with the format.

Though part of the aim of case studies is to help assessors see how you cope with the unfamiliar, research will still boost your confidence and help you tackle issues in a more informed way.

• How to approach case studies on the day

You need to be clear about what you’re being asked to do. Start by reading through the information pack and assessing which parts of the information are relevant.

Understand the problem, your role, and your objectives inside-out. Don't be afraid to ask for more information or clarification about something from your assessors if you’re unsure.

This isn't an exam, and it's better to be clear about what's required than to take an educated stab... and miss.

Some graduates actually give brilliant presentations, only to find out after it's all over that they completely missed the basic point of the exercise. Don't let this be you!

If you’re working in a small group, you could divide up the tasks. You could, for instance, nominate someone to assess any new information passed to the group during the course of the exercise.

Don’t dominate discussions, but do contribute to them – you should articulate what you’re thinking so your assessors can see how you approach problems.

You'll need to manage your time, so ensure that your group has a timekeeper – whether you or someone else. Remember to allocate time to prepare for your final presentation, and be realistic about how much you can fit in to it.

Lastly, don’t lose sight of your objectives! This may seem like common sense now, but after a few tiring hours of being immersed in the problem, you'll find that it's very easy to forget your original goal.

Your final presentation should be relevant, clear and concise, and should include a summary of your conclusions and recommendations.