Acing the In-Basket Exercise in a Criminal Justice Career

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For people who have any intention of moving up the chain in criminal justice careers, at some point in the promotional process, you can expect to encounter the in-basket exercise. This written assessment is perhaps the least prepared for and most misunderstood of the various assessment tools employed for promotional candidates.

The in-basket test may also very well be the best indicator of a person's capabilities and future performance in a criminology career. Understanding the in-basket process and learning how to prepare for and participate in it can make all the difference in putting your name at the top of the list.

Understanding the In-Basket

Passing the promotional exam is the first step, but before you can ace the in-basket, you need to understand what it is. While specific procedures may vary somewhat, essentially the in-basket exercise measures a promotional candidate's ability to prioritize activities and to communicate effectively.

Candidates for promotion are given a packet containing several documents. The document may or may not be time and date stamped. They will include memorandums and directives from a fictional supervisor or manager. They may also include various scenarios, emails from subordinates or members of the public, and other agency-specific documents such as inspection forms, firearms reports, and off-duty reports and requests.

The candidates are given a set time, usually around 3 or 4 hours, to go through the documents and describe in detail how they would handle each document or scenario presented. Each document will be numbered, and in their explanations, candidates will typically be asked to identify the documents they refer to by number so that assessors can properly gauge their performance.

Study, Study, and Study Some More

Your best bet is to study your agencies policies and procedures as well as state statutes, city ordinances and any legal updates or bulletins put out by your department, to prepare for the in-basket exercise. Knowledge truly is power, and in the case of the in-basket exercises, knowing what to do is half the battle.

Organization Is the Key

When the timer starts, and you open your packet the first thing you'll need to do is read through each of the documents, so you have an understanding of their contents. Once you've read them, you need to organize them. Multiple documents may apply to a single scenario. Group related documents together and place them in organized stacks so you can refer to them easily to maximize your use of time.

Understand the Problem

The in-basket exercises won't include any questions; a major part of the assessment is to determine whether or not you can identify the problem. You will need to read the scenarios carefully and make notes so that you can articulate not only what the problem is, but why it's a problem.

Determine How to Act

Once you've identified the problem, you will next need to determine how to approach it. Your agency policy and state law will often dictate what you should do, but the assessors will also be looking for you to describe how you will do it.

In most cases, they will be looking for you to identify ways to serve the best interests of your subordinates, the public, and the agency. Describe how you will apply interpersonal communication and problem-solving skills.

Make Notes and Organize Your Thoughts

Before you begin to write, make notes for each document and scenario you intend to tackle. Use bullet points for quick reference and organize your thoughts in a logical order so you can articulate them better.

Watch Your Penmanship

In many in-basket exercises, points may be deducted for poor penmanship. It may make it harder for those of you who are accustomed to typing all of your written work, but the handwriting is still important in any criminology career. Try your best to write neatly and legibly so that the assessors have the opportunity to read your work.

Articulate Your Responses on the In-basket Exercise

Communication is vital to in-basket exercise success. Make sure that you get your point across by organizing your thoughts in a clear, logical and orderly manner. Identify the problem and demonstrate that you know why it's a problem. Prioritize your responses by writing complete sentences in chronological order, such as "first; I will make contact with Mr. X. Next, I will notify my supervisor," and so on until you show the problem resolved.

By studying your agency policy, honing your written communication skills and learning how to identify and solve problems, you can ensure that you will be successful in any written in-basket exercise. These steps will help you move forward in the promotional process and enhance your criminal justice career.