12 basic Excel skills to help you advance your career

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 18 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In many professions in different industries, you may use various software applications. One piece of software you're likely to use in virtually any role is Microsoft Excel. Therefore, learning more about the functionality of this software can be valuable in your career journey. In this article, we explain why Excel skills are important and explore 12 basic Excel skills that can help you progress in your career.

Why are basic Excel skills important?

Basic Excel skills can be valuable in virtually all professional pursuits. Microsoft Excel is a spreadsheet program that countless organisations in virtually every industry use to store, analyse and manipulate data. It's arguably one of the most important computer programs for professionals to familiarise themselves with, as they use it to meet the data requirements of organisations all over the world. It has a variety of features and functionalities that range from the basic to the more complex.

Some of the more complex features are only valuable to those whose work involves high-level data manipulation but many useful Excel tools can be valuable in virtually any role that involves administration. The capacity to store, manipulate and report on numerical data is helpful to those working in finance and accounting. Producing databases is also beneficial for project managers and HR professionals. Even if your role doesn't appear to involve this type of record-keeping, Excel can provide valuable methods to organise your own work if used effectively.

Related: How to highlight Excel skills on your CV

12 basic Excel skills that can help you in your career

Here are 12 Excel skills that can be valuable to you in your career:

1. Data sorting

Excel provides functionality to sort data into different orders. For instance, you can sort numbers into numerical or reverse numerical order, text into alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order, or dates into chronological or reverse chronological order. This can be useful when entering data from a different source. It isn't necessary to take the time to enter unordered data in the order you ultimately want it. You can enter it in any order and sort it later. Yet, it's important to ensure that any data you've already entered ultimately aligns correctly with the newly entered and sorted data.

2. Data filters

Some spreadsheets may contain large amounts of data or information from multiple datasets. Often, only a certain subset of information or even a specific piece of data may interest you. Manually searching for this information can be laborious and time-consuming and, ultimately, isn't necessary. One basic, though useful, Excel function is the capacity to filter data. You can set filtering parameters to identify and highlight data that fit certain criteria. Using this functionality effectively can allow you to work efficiently with Excel data.

3. SUMIF/SUMIFS

Sometimes you may want to add together, or sum, data relating to specific things or that meet certain conditions. You can often select these conditions as being either true or false. Rather than manually identifying this data and summing the values yourself, you can use Excel's SUMIF or SUMIFS formulas. These formulas let you set a criterion, or multiple criteria, for data. Excel then identifies the values that meet the criteria and adds them together, quickly and efficiently producing the desired figure.

Related: 15 basic Excel formulas to learn (with examples)

4. Pivot tables

Spreadsheets may often contain a large amount of raw data. You may store this data to gain valuable insights from it or to report on it. The data itself may be most useful when effectively summarised rather than in its raw state. Learning to use pivot tables can provide you with an effective tool to do this. Pivot tables are summary tables for your data, where you can, among other calculations, sum, count and average your data. This enables you to produce quick summary reports that generate an overall insight into the data.

5. Keyboard shortcuts

You can access the different Excel formulas and functions by navigating Excel's menus and drop-down lists. This is straightforward but there are ways to work with greater speed and efficiency. Excel maps many functions, particularly popular ones, to keyboard shortcuts. You can press certain keys combinations to access the function or insert the formula. Using these shortcuts may save a few seconds per function, so if you're working with a large dataset or conducting several analyses, the cumulative effect of saving these seconds can significantly reduce your work time.

Related: 15 helpful Microsoft Excel tips to use in the software

6. Formatting cells

Many of the formulas or functions in Excel require you to format the data appropriately. If you've ever entered data in a spreadsheet and attempted to use a function and received an error message, this is likely to be due to formatting the data incorrectly. Learning to format sections of a spreadsheet or individual cells appropriately is a basic but valuable skill that can improve your overall efficiency. It helps ensure that everything works when you use different formulas and other Excel functions, as your data complies with the formatting requirements of the function.

Related: How to combine cells in Excel (Complete Guide)

7. Conditional formatting

Sometimes, you may wish to highlight or otherwise easily identify data meeting certain criteria within a spreadsheet. Rather than doing this manually, which can take time, Excel has a function to automate this process. Conditional formatting allows you to set parameters to identify data within the spreadsheet that meet certain conditions. Based on these conditions, Excel then formats the corresponding cells, for example by highlighting them. This is a quick and efficient way to find, group and/or prominently display certain information.

Related: 10 advanced Excel skills for CV (and jobs that require them)

8. Producing charts

Often, it's useful to take the data stored in a spreadsheet and present it in an easy-to-understand format. Charts can be an effective tool for this. They allow you to summarise the data in a visual format, easily displaying things like trends or correlations in the dataset. Excel lets you produce different types of charts, and you can choose the best option depending on what you want to highlight or the type of data. Learning about Excel's different charting functionalities and understanding how best to use it to display your data can give you a highly valuable career skill.

Related: How to create an Excel graph in 5 simple steps (with tips)

9. Data validation

You may wish to set limits on the information users can enter in specific cells or groups of cells. Data validation is the tool for this, as it allows you to control what data users can enter. For example, you can set parameters that only allow users to enter dates if they fall within a certain range or set numerical limits on the values that users can enter in a certain cell cluster. This helps to reduce the chance of users entering incorrect information. For example, data validation may be useful for documents that multiple users regularly access and update.

10. Vlookup

Reporting on data is often a primary responsibility for those working with Excel. It can therefore be highly valuable to learn how to do this efficiently. One Excel function to help you is Vlookup. This is useful if you've stored data in multiple spreadsheets in an Excel workbook, or in multiple workbooks, and you want to produce a report that combines the data from these different sources. Vlookup lets you collate the data from the different sources into a centralised location, allowing you to produce reports from the combined dataset. This functionality can be useful for professional analysts.

Related: How to use data consolidation in Excel: a complete guide

11. Flash fill

You may often want to enter long, sequential lists of numbers. This may be the case if you're charting daily earnings over a period and you want to enter both the dates and the earnings. The flash fill function can make such tasks more efficient. It automatically generates additional entries to populate sequential cells once it detects a pattern. For instance, after entering a few chronological dates, flash fill enables Excel to automatically generate subsequent dates for you. This can be a great timesaver, particularly if your work regularly involves working with long, sequential lists.

12. Page layout

To get the most out of Excel, it's often important to use a logical and efficient layout for your data. This can not only make the data easier to read and understand but can also simplify data manipulation and the production of reports. Therefore, understanding the optimal page layouts and functions for your dataset can be a valuable skill. Page layout is especially important if you want to produce hard copies of datasets. Having the correct page layout can affect how your spreadsheet prints, such as whether all the information appears on one page.

Related: How to clear formatting in Excel (with helpful tips)

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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