If your assessment centre involves an in-tray exercise then you
will usually be asked to assume a particular role as an employee
of a fictitious organisation and to work through a pile of
correspondence in your in-tray. The in-tray exercise items will be
specifically designed to measure job skills such as: ability to
organize and prioritize work; analytical skills; communication
with team members and customers; written communication skills; and
The in-tray exercise is a major component of most assessment
centres, not only because of the variety of skills, knowledge and
attitudes that can be tested but because this exercise also has
considerable ‘face validity’. This means that candidates can see
how it relates to the job they are applying for and therefore they
tend to take it seriously.
It is vital that you practice this exercise to improve your chances of achieving a maximum score. With practice, you can learn to see which specific in-tray items are testing which of your skills and learn how best to respond to the problems and issues they raise.
Remember, if you have not practiced an in-tray exercise before it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of material you are presented with and expected to work through in the time available. At the very least you should practice working through items and classifying them according to their urgency and importance. You will invariably find that there are one or two ‘major issues’ hidden among the in-tray items and if you miss these you will struggle to remain a credible candidate.
Many people find the in-tray to be the most difficult of all of the assessment centre exercises. Your brief may be something totally unexpected like being told that it is the first day of your new job as deputy head-teacher and given a list of thirty tasks and memos to prioritize and action. You may be given this type of scenario even if you are applying for a job that has nothing to do with education.
Don’t make the mistake of worrying about the topic. You will be
judged on how well you can handle complex information, determine
priorities, make decisions within time limits, display sensitivity
to potential problems and communicate clearly. Try to imagine that
you are at work doing the described duties, rather than just
completing an exercise, but make sure that the reasons for your
actions are clear and documented.
The type of issues you will be asked to review and action will reflect the ‘nature’ of the role you have applied for. This does not necessarily mean that the scenario will be based on your industry or sector, but it does mean that if you are applying for a strategic role then it is likely that you can expect a significant number of your in-tray items will be designed to test your strategic decision making; whereas if you are hoping for a management role, the in-tray items are more likely to raise issues about team building, coaching, motivation and other management issues.
In-tray exercises can take a variety of formats and the two most popular are :
For the majority of in-tray exercises you will be given the following information and told that it has all taken place in the same calendar year.
You should check whether you can write on, or jot notes on, the
in-tray items themselves. If you can, then make full use of this
option. Be mindful to be consistent in where you write your notes
so that you can easily review them i.e. always in bottom
right-hand corner. Remember that everything you do must maximise
and efficiently use the time you have available.
From the data you are supplied with you will be able to extract the necessary information which will form the basis of your decision making during the exercise. During your preparation for the in-tray exercise it is important keep in mind the Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes your assessors will be looking for you to exhibit.
If you are applying for a top level management or strategic role, you will find that the in-tray exercise is longer and has a greater intensity contained within its items than those on line management grades. You will frequently find that you are required to produce written responses to items. As the intensity of the exercises increases the likelihood of being able to complete the whole exercise in the allocated time diminishes. It is how you respond to the major issues that matters, more than being able to complete the whole exercise but the latter should always be your goal.
For some candidates their in-tray exercise could be up to three hours in length. This is frequently done in two or three sections which are fitted around the other exercises you will undertake during the assessment centre. You can rest assured that all candidates will have the same experience, so that you can all be scored fairly.