In-Tray Exercise Tips for Interview Success

With today’s jobs requiring an ever broader range of skills, employers are increasingly using practical selection tests as part of their recruitment processes. In-tray exercises are one of the most popular of these hands-on assessment techniques. With some basic information and guidance on the whys and wherefores, this is an area where savvy applicants can really shine.

The inside track on the in-tray

Employers use in-tray exercises to simulate real life organisational scenarios which may arise during a normal business day. They generally involve a paper or electronic tray (e-tray) containing records such as emails, letters, voicemails, reports and notes from colleagues.

The purpose of the exercise is to test your ability to prioritise the urgency attached to each of these pieces of information and address them in that rank order. There is often limited time to deal with everything in the tray, so candidates experience the pressure of having to cope with an impending deadline. Approaching the in-tray requires a calm head, an ability to make good decisions on the basis of the information provided and the drive to get through large amounts of unfamiliar documentation while under time pressure.

tips for in tray exercise

Preparation in advance of the in-tray

As with most parts of the interview process, the in-tray requires careful planning and preparation. Although you won’t know what exactly will come up on the day (as this would rather defeat the purpose of the exercise) you may be able to glean certain information about the nature of the test in advance.

Read your invitation to attend the exercise carefully and if you know anyone who has been through the process with the same organisation before, then gather as much information as you can from them. Some companies provide sample tests which gives you an insight into the style of in-tray they plan to use. This can also help identify similar tests available online which you can practice with.

Additional research is also necessary about the company and what their priorities are. Review their website and scour through corporate strategies to assess what is most important to them both in terms of performance and culture. This will ensure the decisions you make on the day tie in with the ethos of the business as much as your own personal intuition.

In-tray performance management

Although in-tray exercises involve limited time, they are usually more of a marathon than a sprint, lasting on average 1-2 hours. Use your time wisely, allocating each stage of action a set amount of time.

The first stage is reading through all the information. Take your time at this and don’t be tempted to skim read as you may miss vital pieces of information, often cleverly buried in seemingly innocuous documents. Make notes as you go, identifying headline information and recurring themes in the material.

Having reviewed the documents, you now need to assign each one a category. Think about how significant the task is (important, minor, optional) and how time sensitive it is (urgent, routine, unnecessary). You should also think about tasks which can be delegated to other team members- just don’t attempt to pass everything on! Justify the decisions you make with evidence to back them up.

With the priority identified for each task, use the remaining time to work your way through them systematically. Pay close attention to accuracy- it is better to complete a lower number of tasks but do them well. Leave time at the end to check over your work and correct any mistakes.

For more tips on other interview methods, be sure to read our free information on the ISC Professional website.

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