The 31 Most Important Advanced Excel Skills for Professionals
Since its initial release in 1987, Microsoft Excel and the rest of the Office suite have become a productivity staple in more than 1 billion homes and offices across the globe. Some users like to use its spreadsheets to keep track of their personal spending habits and savings goals, while others find it a handy tool to map out vacation plans and plan grocery lists. On a professional level, though, businesses often rely on Excel for a wide range of tasks, including team management, data entry, expense tracking, statistical analysis, and even forecasting.
With the business world’s ever-growing reliance on data, now is a great time for budding professionals and seasoned workers alike to get familiar with Excel’s features beyond data entry and basic formatting.
If you landed on this blog, chances are you’re interested in getting a deeper understanding of those skills but are unsure of where to start. The good news is that you don’t have to overwhelm yourself with its long list of formulas, shortcuts, and tools to become a pro — just keep reading to get an overview of essential skills for advanced users to know and take your pick of the ones that are most relevant to you.
One of the best things about Excel is that it not only comes with a spreadsheet to neatly store your data, but also tons of tools, formulas, and shortcuts that make managing said data stress-free. If it takes you a lot of time to complete a single task, you’ll definitely want to learn these skills and reduce your time spent on data entry to a matter of seconds.
To begin, let’s take a look at some of the most commonly-used tools that Excel provides.
1. Data Validation
The ability to neatly organize information within the rows and columns of Excel’s spreadsheets is one contributing factor to its popularity. While you can make manual adjustments to arrange your data to meet your preferences, Excel experts rely on data validation to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them.
This tool allows you to control user input, which is perfect when sharing workbooks with multiple people. Some common uses for data validation include transforming cells into drop-down lists, adding custom rules, and formatting numbers. For example, you can take advantage of data validation to alert users when they input invalid information. (e.g., entering text in a cell that calls for numbers).
In the image above, the “Allow” field is where you would set your limitations on what type of data is allowed within the selected range of cells. You can access this dialog box by going to the “Data” tab and clicking on “Data Validation” within the ribbon. In total, there are eight different data validation options users can set for any cell.
- Any Value: If any value is allowed, this tells Excel that no validation is necessary for the selected cells. This will be the default option.
- Whole Number: If selected, users will only be able to enter whole numbers in the cell. If you’re sharing a spreadsheet with others and only want them to input values between 1 and 10, this will bring an alert if they enter something outside of that range.
- Decimal: This works very similarly to whole numbers, except it converts numbers to decimal values.
- List: The list option only allows values from a predefined list. You can enter these using the “Settings” tab under dropdown menu controls.
- Dates: You will only be able to enter dates within a specified range.
- Time: You will only be able to enter time within a specified range.
- Text length: This lets you set a character limit so that users cannot input anything beyond a certain text length.
- Custom: Selecting this option allows you to validate data using a custom formula. For example, you can make it so that users have to input data in all uppercase characters, or even show an alert if a user inputs a date beyond 30 days from the current date.
- Drop-Down Selections: This works alongside data validation so users can create drop-down selection lists that only contain accepted input options for any cell.
- Custom Filtering: Custom filtering allows users to slice and dice data in an endless number of ways.
- Protecting Sheets and Locking Cells: Version controls such as sheet protection allow worksheet values and formulas not to become altered in any way, especially important when the worksheet owner passes it to various collaborators.
2. VBA and macros
Macros are yet another Excel feature that helps users complete tasks more efficiently. If you find yourself doing repetitive tasks that could stand to be automated, macros might be the perfect solution to optimizing your workflow. In some cases, applying macros can easily turn a potential all-nighter into a quick, two-hour project. Not all employers require this skill, but its reputation for time-saving makes it worthwhile to learn.
Short for Visual Basic for Applications, VBA is Excel’s programming language. Many of Udemy’s online courses will group VBA and macros together, as VBA allows you to have complete control over macros. And because it can work across multiple Microsoft Office applications, being familiar with VBA code will make you a valuable asset to any data team.
You can take your first step to learning VBA and macros with a deeper look into what they are and how to use them.
3. Statistical analysis
If you plan to work with statistics in Excel, there are specialized tools designed to help you crunch the numbers. Options include finding a correlation between data sets, generating random numbers, and even creating histograms. With Excel doing all of the hard work, you no longer have to worry about performing manual calculations or correcting human errors.
Some of these items are built into Excel’s functions, but most are available as features of the add-in analysis toolpak. Go to the Data tab and click on the gear icon for analysis tools to make sure you have that resource installed. Now you can start learning some of the functions within it.
4. Tables, Graphs, and Dashboards
Tables and graphs are an excellent way to visualize your data, and usually don’t take much time to learn. Trying to calculate large sets of data and then draw it all by hand is neither the best use of time, nor practical in workplaces that do everything on a digital screen.
Imagine you’re the person in charge of tracking the travel expenses for a Fortune 500 company in Excel, and you have to show that data to your colleagues before the end of each quarter. Presenting that information as a list would be incredibly hard to read, especially if there are hundreds of transactions. Your best approach is to create visuals like bar graphs and pie charts to give everyone a quick overview of the company’s spending habits.
If your work calls for a mix of bar graphs, pie charts, and pivot tables, you should consider using dashboards to illustrate your key metrics. Dashboards can serve as visual reports of your company data and can even be interactive. You can find free and paid templates online — like the one we grabbed from Smartsheet above — or try a Udemy course to learn how to build them yourself.
Excel’s built-in tools are easy to use, save a lot of time, and will get you on the fast track to becoming a pro. Once you have the essentials down, you should ramp up your Excel knowledge with functions and keyboard shortcuts. Much like the skills mentioned above, these formulas take little effort to master and start incorporating into your daily Excel use.
Logical functions can be extremely helpful when different types of data call for different formatting. When applied to a cell, these types of functions will let you know if a condition is TRUE or FALSE, and you can set custom parameters depending on the result.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
5. IF statements
The IF function returns a result based on whether or not a condition is TRUE or FALSE. For example, a cell can return TRUE if sales exceed $1000 and FALSE if sales do not exceed $1000. This is an excellent choice for teachers grading tests who want to quickly determine if students have passed or failed.
A MULTIPLE IF statement is when several IF functions are present in a single formula, which can introduce a lot of conditions to filter out nonessential data. Excel also has a function that used IF statements with the SUM function — which we go into detail in our blog on SUMIF statements. To summarize, SUMIF statements trigger Excel to add everything in your spreadsheet if it meets all of your criteria.
6. NESTED IF
If you have to choose between three binary or more binary choices, then a NESTED IF is helpful. For example, a NESTED IF can return the values of ‘Excellent,’ ‘Fair,’ or ‘Poor’ if an entry meets a certain set of criteria (e.g., larger than $50, smaller than $75)
A fusion of the SUM and PRODUCT functions, SUMPRODUCT multiplies each array in your selection, adds all of the totals together, and displays the answer in your chosen cell.
8. OR and AND
Usually part of a larger formula, both of these functions determine whether or not a condition or all defined conditions is true or false, respectively.
Data functions help you find exactly what you’re looking for, which is perfect when managing large amounts of data.
This function stands for “vertical lookup” and is arguably one of the most powerful Excel charting functions. VLOOKUPs work to look up a value in a large data table and return a corresponding value that’s sitting in the same row. The value you are looking up needs to be in the left-most column, and the value that’s returned has to be in an adjacent column. This works for data tables with column headers.
This charting function stands for “horizontal lookup” and works the same way as a VLOOKUP, only it works for data tables with row headers. Instead of returning a corresponding value for a defined column, it gives a corresponding value for a defined row.
These data functions are more straightforward than VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP. Two of the more popular text functions are the CONCATENATE and MID formulas.
CONCATENATE combines multiple values from multiple cells and outputs them to a single text string.
The MID function extracts a substring from a defined string. The user would specify the starting position and the number of characters to extract. This formula works well when integrated within larger formulas for more intensive data processing tasks.
CHAR takes a number between one and 255 and gives a corresponding character. This is determined based on ASCII values.
The TRIM functions allow users to move excess spaces from text data, keeping one space in between each word. It is also helpful in removing leading spaces and trailing spaces.
The EXACT function allows users to compare two pieces of text and determine if they are identical. Matching text returns a ‘TRUE’ value, and differing text returns a ‘FALSE’ value. This is one of the fastest ways to determine if a user altered the text.
The TEXTJOIN function works similarly to the CONCATENATE function. However, it has two more features — it allows users to separate data with a delimiter in between, and it enables users to ignore empty cells in the data list.
The TEXT function allows users to convert numeric values to text values. For example, it can convert a cell with several numerical values to a percentage, number, decimal, and others with different symbols and separators. One of the more popular applications that comes to mind is converting data to a day of the week, a much quicker process than referring to an actual calendar.
The LOWER function allows users to convert any text values into lower case text values. This is very useful for text-based functions.
Like the LOWER function, the UPPER function allows users to convert any text values into upper case text values.
The PROPER text function allows users to convert any text into a proper case, which consists of each word containing a capitalized first letter, with all remaining letters in lower case. This works great to quickly bulk edit titles.
The LEFT function allows users to extract the left-most characters from a text string to place them in new cells. Users can define the number of characters extracted. This works great for parsing information, such as addresses (e.g., entering ZIP codes in their own separate column)
The RIGHT function works just like the LEFT function in that it extracts the rightmost characters from a text string and places it in a new column.
The LEN function allows users to get a character count. It works great to quickly tell the number of characters for each value in bulk instead of plugging each row’s content into a separate character counter tool.
The REPT function allows users to repeat any text any amount of time. The first argument is the text you wish to repeat, and the second argument is the number of times it should repeat the text.
The FIND function is exactly what the name implies. It allows users to find a particular text value within a larger piece of text. The first argument is the value you want to find, and the second argument is the text you want to find the value in. There is also an optional argument that allows the search to start at any character within the larger piece of text.
The REPLACE function allows users to replace text based on a character location. It uses four arguments — the old text to replace values in, the starting position for a replacement, the number of characters to replace, and the last argument is the value you want to replace it with.
The SEARCH function allows users to find text within a larger piece of text. It works similar to the FIND function, only the search function is not case sensitive. The first argument finds the word within a cell, the second argument tells the formula where to look, and the third argument (optional) offers a starting position on where to start the search from (expressed in a number of characters).
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The SUBSTITUTE function allows users to find and replace text values. The first argument takes the text we want to locate and replace values in, the second argument is the text to find, and the third argument is the text we want to replace the value with.
Note, this is not a comprehensive list. Exploring each of these functions and applying them to everyday practice will save you a lot of time in even the most intensive data exercises.
30. Array functions
Array functions work to solve specific types of problems. This usually consists of multiple functions that are nested together, with the more popular array functions including IFERROR, AND, INDEX, and MATCH. Another valuable array function is the Transpose function, which allows uses to convert rows to columns and vice versa, effectively switching the axes for your data.
31. Excel shortcuts
Navigating Excel is simple enough, but it can be even easier with shortcuts. Below, you’ll find a list of keyboard shortcuts for both Windows and macOS. A plus sign between the keys means you have to press the keys all at once, while a comma tells you to type them in the order listed.
|Shortcut description||How to enter in Windows||How to enter in macOS|
|Closes a Workbook||CTRL + W||COMMAND + W|
|Opens a Workbook||CTRL + O||COMMAND + O|
Reverts to the Home tab
|Alt + H||Not available for this device.|
|Saves all of the data in the worksheet||CTRL + S||COMMAND + S|
|Undo selected data||CTRL + Z||COMMAND + Z|
|Removes the contents of a cell||Delete||Delete|
|Chooses a fill color for the selected cell||Alt + H , H||Not available for this device.|
|Aligns cell contents in the center||Alt + H , A , C||COMMAND + E|
|Navigates to the View tab||Alt + W||Not available for this device.|
|Open context menu||Shift + F10||Shift + F10|
|Navigates to Formula tab||Alt + M||Not available for this device.|
|Hides selected rows||CTRL + 9||(^) + 9|
|Hides selected columns||CTRL + 0||(^) + 0|
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Now that you have an idea of what Microsoft Excel has to offer and which tools best suit your needs, you can move forward with personalizing a lesson plan that will make you stand out in your industry. Whether you plan to do a deep dive at a steady pace or a quick overview, Udemy has tons of resources to set you up for success.
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