How To Ace An In-tray/E-tray Exercise

You may have seen the in-tray or e-tray exam mentioned on an application form.  But what is it, and how can you perform well in one?

Used by many companies and some high-profile graduate schemes, the in-tray or e-tray test is way of putting applicants under a sort of administrative chaos. On top of responding to emails and managing events, they may even throw in an internal crisis for you to deal with e.g. a valued team member is unhappy at work and wants leave.

Employers use the in-tray, which can last between half-an-hour and two hours, at the interview or assessment day phase to see how quick off the mark a candidate is. It provides a significant insight into your organisational and time-management skills, and could well turn out to be a deal-breaker in your overall application.


What will I be asked to do?

Usually, you’re given a stack of papers, memos, emails, appointment reminders or meeting agendas called a candidate brief. You then have to sift through the pile and say which tasks you think are high priority and urgent and which ones are more low-priority ‘could-get-on-with-that-later’ kind of tasks. As well as judging what objectives are high, medium, and low priority, you may also be asked to draft emails, set-up phone calls and analyse basic data.

Sometimes you will be given an imaginary job role with some importance i.e. a branch manager’s position and have to navigate a clear way through this mass of information. This hypothetical responsibility will often come with a diagram showing the structure of the made-up company, so you get a decent idea of who’s who and who to liaise with.


Is there a difference between in-tray and e-tray?

As the words probably give away, the only real difference between the two is that one is a written test, whereas the other is conducted on a computer. The e-tray will contain a batch of emails to get through, and you will be presented with a set of multiple choice questions as to what should be dealt with first.

So how to deal with it?


1. Prioritise

Even though the in-tray is only a simulation, your answers will show how you grapple with a hefty, fluid workload. Emergency items will include anything you need to send out that morning, or perhaps an imminent meeting you need to arrange. Sorting out over-night accommodation for a guest speaker in a month’s time, for example, would be lower down on the list.

If the employer really wants to test your nerve, they can bring in fresh tasks during the test itself, almost like a breaking news item. Don’t panic, quickly check the deadline or the timeframe of the new material and see where it fits into your current plan. Be prepared to amend some of your ‘high’ priority tasks as you go – flexibility is always a good trait.


2. Delegate

Never think that you have to see through every task completely alone. In the real world you will eventually be a valued member of a team, so it’s good idea to show-off how you would delegate or distribute work amongst colleagues. Here you can refer to the diagram of the company structure to see who might better tackle a certain problem.


3. Quality skim-reading

The key is to find a balance between a patient eye for detail and the speed-reading nature of the exercise. If you’re asked to organise a team meeting or phone HQ, always check times and dates.

Note how long you have to write and send off a press release. Check who’s sending you emails and how important they are to your hypothetical company (your boss or the CEO are people to look out for). Depending on the job you’re applying for, try not to get too weighed down by statistical detail or company politics and regulations.


4. Formal style

Parts of the in-tray will ask you to compose an email or two – so be on your best behaviour. Almost all jobs involve corresponding with both an internal team and external clients, and learning to write fluently in a clear professional style is an essential skill to grasp.

Sometimes the employer will provide an ‘in-house’ style guide to help you along. It is always worth a flick through, but a way to save time would be to close read the company’s webpage during your pre-interview research. Here you’ll find their level of formality, their buzzwords, their audience base and their core values.

At first the in-tray test may sound like a malevolent test of mettle, the equivalent of an interviewer enjoying catching you out on something. Yet this demanding task provides a good picture of how you would work in a real-time office environment. Fortunately, there are plenty of online practice tests to prepare you for the ordeal!


Inspiring Interns is a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs, visit their website.