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What does it mean to be "Strong at Excel"?


Brian Allen Concord, CA

I got an email back from a job application recently and they're asking for someone with experience with Excel. The email states:

"How often did you use MS Office programs, specifically Excel. We use Excel extensively, so I need someone with strong skills."

I've used Excel to make lists, organize information, and calculate number sets like grades or attendance. What more would an employer expect from someone if they're "strong" with Excel?

EDIT: This is from a recent message after I explained my military experience and said I knew how to use Excel. I am applying for the "Ops Coordinater" position:

"Thank you for your explanation. We’re a 2 person office – me (owner) and the Ops Coordinator. How will that be for you after working in large organizations? Because there are only 2 of us, there are many hats both of us wear so prepare and manage the 7 campus locations. This is a job of details!"

EDIT PART 2: So I went to the interview and the person that currently has the job gave me a test in Excel. I was worried for a minute, but I find that all I had to do was put in the basic info for one worksheet following some basic rules (a previous example was available in the second worksheet) and then copy /paste the same thing over several other worksheets. It turns out that's all I had to do because previous applicants were unable to do as much as I did. The current person was satisfied and the boss told me some 'horror stories' of other applicants. The interview itself went well enough, but as always they're interviewing others for the position as well.

I'd like to thank everyone that contributed, even just a little bit. I posted the same question on Quora and the first answer I received was some negative individual who saw fit to refer to me as a 'novice'. The responses I've gotten here remind me that this is a safe place for veterans and anyone that's a member here is truly a mentor that's providing a service to prior service personnel.

Thank you

1 March 2015 18 replies Education & Training



Robyn Warr New York, NY

I too agree with Morgan. As an HR person or a manager, if I am looking for someone with strong excel skills, versus "experience with" or "proficient in" then I would expect someone to be able to do all the basics, plus pivot tables, concatenating cells, advanced formulas, and experience dealing with large data tables.

Microsoft used to have free online training tutorials on all their products that were rather helpful.

4 March 2015 Helpful answer


Ted Mittelstaedt Portland, OR

Hi Brian,

Basically they want to pay someone peanuts who walks on water. If they really offered and asked for what they really need you probably would have realized the job was out of your league and not applied.

There is a triangle in hiring people. The 3 sides are "cost" "personality" "competence"
Meaning, if you as an employer want to hire someone who is stunningly competent, has an excellent group-oriented, friendly personality, your gonna pay top dollar. If you can't afford to pay top dollar then you can either get competence and a crappy personality or incompetence and a great personality. Good employers know this. The Fortune 500 know it well - but they have the money to pay top dollar so they can demand competence and personality. Everyone else out there has to make do with 1 of the sides being weak for most of the employees they hire. Usually it's easier to educate the friendly but incompetent employee than to build a hardwall office at the back of the warehouse and isolate the toxic-but-competent employee, so it's better to come off the first way if you know you don't have the 2 sides of the triangle.

This is very typical it happens with many businesses. The only correct response is basically to say what you already have said "I've used Excel to make lists, organize information, and calculate number sets like grades or attendance." followed by "however I am studying the advanced features of Excel on my own and I'm really interested in this position" That is Candidate-Code for "I'll go to school and learn to program in Excel if you pay for the class" If they interview you, you just tell them your willing to take a class if they need someone to come up to speed faster than it would take for you to figure it out on your own. Usually employers feel more comfortable if the incompetent employee is under supervision of an instructor rather than the employee assuring the employer that they are doing it themselves.

My guess is they have a series of complex linked spreadsheets, possibly under macro control and the one guy who put everything together for them realized he was basically working as a programmer (he was) and could make 6 figures doing the same thing somewhere else. Of course, they love the fact that all this work basically crunches the numbers they need in 5 minutes that previously took a week - but they got sticker shock when they contacted some software development houses asking about pricing for maintaining the system. Now they are coming to the realization that what they had in the last guy normally costs very, very, very much money and they were gettin a deal. It is human nature to want Easy Street to continue once it happens, so they won't easily give up the idea they can get someone "strong with Excel" for not a lot of money.

They are very likely not going to be able to find anyone at the price they are asking so you have as good chance of getting it as anyone else - the question is do you want to do this kind of work or not? There's a lot of money in that field if you want to do it. But many people find it boring or they go crazy staring at figures all day long. If you like that kind of work then tell them that right away, as strongly and as forcefully as you can.

Keep in mind if you get it you will be putting every spare minute of time you have outside the job into learning what you need to know for the next 3-6 months. If you can assure them that your viewing this as a ticket into this kind of career, and your going to stick around for at least a year, then they might make a tradeoff that OK they will take someone inexperienced and let them learn on the job while they are getting good at it. Particularly if they don't have deep pockets.

2 March 2015 Helpful answer


Ponni Anand Seattle, WA

Yes there are lot of functions in excel that do not get used extensively. But if the organization is seeking someone with knowledge on many functions in excel- Don't be fazed. You can learn all the functions by taking the online tutorial. There are plenty of them on you tube. I have attached a link to one:

I had a direct report who learnt access from the scratch using the online you tube tutorials and he built an in house database for us. If time permits, why don't you give access also a try.

1 March 2015 Helpful answer


Gilbert Bolibol Colorado Springs, CO

I would agree with what Morgan answered with. Excel is something that you will get better over time and lots of use. It would be helpful to take a class on Excel to become more proficient in. If you don't have access to Excel, as a military member, you can purchase the Microsoft office at a discounted price. Here's the website to purchase it:

1 March 2015 Helpful answer


Morgan Lerette Glendale, AZ

Formulas and pivot tables. Essentially, tools to help filter and reduce large data sets for analysis.

People who are skilled at excel are pretty rare. I thought I knew it as I had used it in a similar fashion as you mention above. Then I met a finance person and realized the tool had more functionality.

You can take courses on it to get up to speed but it's like push ups, the only way to get really good at it is to practice.


1 March 2015 Helpful answer


Josh Margolis Columbus, OH


Excel has a very deep programming capability, more than just tabulating numbers. Macros can be written in Visual Basic and probably other programming languages. As others have mentioned, search for tutorials online to get a feel for it. This will let you talk knowledgeably about it.

5 March 2015 Helpful answer


Candace Carr Glenview, IL

Brian, I like to think I am strong in Excel, but it always humbles me! There are always new things to learn with it. There are functions you may do rarely, and some you need regularly. My point is, don't be intimidated or worried about it. Tell them what you can do and they will let you know if it's enough. Employers will also look at your overall abilities and say "Hey, if he can do those things, I'm sure he can pick this up quickly." Keep up the good work! All the best!

4 March 2015 Helpful answer


Jason Gustavson New York, NY

index match
pivot table
graph creation
hot keys memorized
expierence with large data sets

Strong excel skills usually refers to someone who can perform above functions quickly and without much effort. This person is someone who can think through excel roadblocks as they come up and make useful insights into the data in front of them.

4 March 2015 Helpful answer


Michael Mitchell Nashville, TN

Brian, there are many uses for Excel and it's used differently depending on industry. Excel is a basic spreadsheet and was originally designed by an Accounting person. Over the years it has grown into something much more powerful then just a basic Accounting tool.

When your prospective employer ask about your proficiency with Excel, my question would be, "How do you use Excel", then I would learn everything you need to know based on their answer. There are many good classes online which are free. Warehousing, Construction and most anything progress based task(s) can use Excel. It's pretty widespread in all industries and you should have a basic understanding of how it works.

I learned very VERY basic Excel in about 20 minutes. We use it to track progress on our construction jobs, very useful. Should you want to learn about the history of Electronic Spreadsheets download a podcast called Planet Money, episode #606. Its pretty good.

Good Luck

3 March 2015 Helpful answer


Jeff Shoemaker Lake In The Hills, IL

When I ask employers if 2 candidates have similar skills and experience who do they select they always select someone with Excel exp. Every job today deals with data and information and Excel is the common tool for analysis, reporting, etc. Just be able to perform all core features and functions - what if scenarios, calculations, etc. You probably don't need to be able to write macros just a good foundation. It is a required skills these days. If you need to learn more and you don't have Excel download a trial copy, go to the library and check out a copy and a tutorial and learn


Kent C Portsmouth, VA

I would focus on the basic functions,
Cells - Insert, Delete, Copy, Move Up/Down/Left/Right, Merge, Center (Format Cells)
Data within those cells - Copy, autofill, Autosum.
Rows - Insert, Delete, Copy, Move Up/Down/Left/Right, Adjusting Height
Columns - Insert, Delete, Copy, Move Up/Down/Left/Right, Adjusting Width
Page Break
Print Preview and manipulation
Tabs - Rename, Copy, Move, Delete, Move/Copy between from one spreadsheet, to another
Convert to pdf
Ability to take a part of the spreadsheet (table) and import it to a Word document.

I, also, recommend taking a short course in Excel. It is a major part of the civilian management process, second only to Outlook. Outlook is the poor man's "Personal Secretary". It keeps you on track, notified, and follows up on important things.

Good Luck, and remember that the most competent Brain Surgeon started out by learning how to color inside the lines. Do Not sweat anything you think you will be facing. You have done some pretty amazing things so far.


Gerald Thomas Tulsa, OK

They need to be more specific. Strong in Excel is all subjective. I need somepeople who are skilled in programming and macros when in other areas i need a person who understands pivot tables and basic formulas. I would go back and ask them specifically what are their needs?



Most companies today expect their employees at nearly all levels to be proficient in Excel and in Power Point. There are no staff around any more to provide support in those programs. Those programs have been around long enough that most people in college use them without assistance, and organizations/companies expect their employees to be able to use those programs. So, if your skills are only modest, you may want to find a resource to help you improve those skills.

Good luck in your transition.


Carl Legge West Chester, PA

At my company, everyone is familiar with excel. Strong at excel means you can do formulas and big spreadsheets with multiple tabs. Expert level probably starts at VLOOKUP. Google it and you'll know what I mean, it's about taking one spreadsheet and checking it against another spreadsheet. Our analysts can do this in their sleep, but the average person can't do it, or even understand what it means. Hope that helps!


Stephen Davis Campbell, CA

Ive met people that can do just about anything with excel. They are so gifted that you need to be extremely careful with the data you give them, because they can find hidden data that you don't want them to see. I'm talking being able to see the salaries of everyone in the company that you thought you hid and locked.

Pivot tables that can be manipulated to give you just about any bit of information you want. And that's just scratching the surface.


Paul Trejo Austin, TX

Hi Brian.

Thanks for your years of service. My answer: PIVOT TABLES. That's the main thing today. It the SQL world it is called a "Cube" or an "Analytical Cube." it is a fast way to sort tons of data in different "dimensions" at the click of a button. It's the latest thing.

Best wishes,


E Y Cerritos, CA

Brian, if the employer didn't write any Excel specific skills (i.e. programming, statistical toolbox, etc.), then my guess would be the ability to use Excel to organize data and create charts would be their definition of "strong". Please take a look at you can do and understand most of what is discussed, I'd say you'd have strong Excel skills. Also, I'd just call them and ask what specific Excel skill sets they are seeking.


Cindy Faria Pensacola, FL

My thoughts are that they expect you to be well beyond the average Excel user, including being able to use formulas. They may want you to be able to use macros and pivot tables. I consider these to be advanced capabilities. I am only an average user myself.

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