What is proficiency in Excel and Word?
January 19, 2014 2:12 AM   Subscribe

What do you need to know to be "proficient" in Excel and Word?

Recruiters/ managers often ask How proficient are you in MS Excel and Word. What does, for example, an "8 on scale of 10" proficiency mean in Excel and Word? What do you need to know how to do to in both programs to be considered proficient, and what are they expecting in an entry-level office job?

I haven't used Word except for papers/ mostly text documents. What is advanced use of Word and can you give me some examples of how you've used it at your work?

I don't have much work experience, so I don't know what scenarios would require the different functions of Word/Excel. Please give me specific example of how you've used them. For example, "using mail merge in Word to send out weekly coupons" or "using filtering in Excel to find out which items to restock." Thanks!
posted by ichomp to Work & Money (14 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
For xls, that'd mean two things: 1. knowing less used formulas (ifsum and junk), pivot tables, vlookups. As important, knowing when to use those things. What's key is that I can hand a big blob of data to someone and get back something in a reasonable timeframe that is presentable and makes sense of that data.

2. Abillity to format in a way that makes sense. If its for a client or is sorta official, the company logo is in a footer and resized if necessary, the margins and zoom are consistent across pages, etc.
posted by jpe at 2:45 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

The question is kinda BS, IMHO. Unless they're going to have you take a test or hand you a checklist of specific formulas and ask you to describe their use, 'proficiency' isn't the most quantifiable thing around. They just want to ensure remedial training isn't necessary, especially if it's something that cuts the number of applications to review.

This leaves you with a few options:

A: describe how you've used Word / Excel in the past. Examples of 'I managed our department's contact database' or 'I got our annual report ready for the printer' are fine.

B: Smile confidently, stating (truthfully) that you've used the programs for years and can navigate them just fine. There's tutorials for most everything online.

C: BS back - '8 on a scale of 10' is as vague as the question.

Presuming you've used the programs in *some* kind of setting (school? volunteer? internship?), A is as good as it gets. If you have very little experience, period, try to BS through the question, then get cracking posthaste.
posted by chrisinseoul at 3:03 AM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my experience, for Word, if you know how to use Styles properly and do use them, you're probably already more proficient than most.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:13 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

These are my rough guidelines, though it really is a guessing game as to what is meant by advanced/proficient unless the recruiter/manager provides some specific examples.

1) Have used the program before - can save things sensibly, perform basic formatting and copy and pasting.

2) Competent - can use a decent number of the programs' built in tools to be more efficient and let others be more efficient. So for Word, tables of contents, styles, bullets, tabs, tracked changes. For Excel, aggregation worksheet functions (SUM, AVERAGE etc) and VLOOKUP, data sorting and filtering, familiarity with the different Paste Special options.

3) Advanced - some kind of familiarity with vba, even if it's just being able to record a macro and tweak it. For Word, mailmerge, cross-references and ability to troubleshoot weird formatting in existing documents. For Excel, pivot tables, nested formulae and knowledge of less common but powerful worksheet functions like SUMPRODUCT, INDIRECT and MATCH/INDEX.
posted by MUD at 4:37 AM on January 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

In excel, get to know formulas like SUMIFS, COUNTIFS, COUNTA, IFERROR, and VLOOKUP. I find those to be the most useful of any. I personally do not like pivot tables, but I understand their use for mid-level Excel use. They are quick and dirty; I suppose you should learn them before you learn to dislike them.

If you really want to develop some skill to boast about, look up a tutorial on how to program a simple macro or two. Once you understand how that works, the Excel world becomes your oyster. (I do a lot of this)

As for Word, I feel that if you can mess with the header/footer, create a table of contents, insert a table that doesn't end up looking mangled, and maybe fiddle with styles, you're proficient enough for about anything they'd ask you to do.

Seriously though, when you get into advanced Excel functionality, SUMIFS and COUNTIFS might be your best friends in terms of data analysis.

Good luck!
posted by JimBJ9 at 4:55 AM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

A lot depends on the work the company does. For a law office, the ability to create proper paragraph numbering, footnotes, endnotes, and a table of contents is of key importance. For just about any business, in addition to the points made above, knowledge of headers and footers is another important point. Adding inline photos and text boxes is a distinct plus.
posted by yclipse at 5:07 AM on January 19, 2014

I am considered the resident Word and Excel person in my office. For me, the key is not the specific things I know how to do, but that I'm familiar enough with the way the programs work to easily figure out how to do almost anything even if I've never done it before. There's no way you can be familiar with every function of the program - even power users will only be using a handful of the functions on a daily basis. But if you have the confidence to poke around and use google and figure out how to use a new formula or create a new kind of pivot table without asking for outside help, I'd consider that a high level of competence.
posted by something something at 6:02 AM on January 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

My students are horrible at accessing their skills in software and go to extremes in ranking because of the subjectivity of question. The way I calibrate is I base it off of lynda.com's essential training series. So in the case of MS Word, you will see using styles as the tail end and so is more advanced. If a student has never used styles well, that indicates that they are not the "expert" they thought they were.

But in interviews, I would follow the advice above and be able to describe what you can do as MUD describes. Now, you are aware that there is actual testing software used by temp firms so that they can price their staffing e.g., advanced knowledge of office. You maybe surprised what "advanced" is really defined as in those exams. Here is a previous question about it.
posted by jadepearl at 6:05 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Clearly it depends a lot on the job. The specific requirements of a role drive focus and determine what exactly somebody means when they say 'proficient'. I'm an accountant in practice (people in industry do Excel much better than us lot so they'd probably call this the bare minimum, not proficiency) and here's what I expect my trainees to be able to get to grips with pretty soon after they start, if they don't know already. To this end we actually do a half day workshop to make them aware these things exist so they can look up or ask how to do them.

Excel functions
sumif, countif, left,right,vlookup, filtering, pivot tables, paste special, breaking links to data, map to column, range of ways of formatting data so that it reads properly and so these functions work

They generally find these things the most useful on a day to day basis.

Personally, I give peeps bonus points if they realise that you can google most any excel problem and work out how to do stuff without asking me.

Extra bonus points entering geek territory if you can link the above together to make complex formulas that really do stuff and that you have to sit down next to me to explain when I try to review your work.

Extra extra bonus points if you realise that you need to double check that your data/analysis/captures all required inputs/that your formulae work etc, i.e. build checks into your spreadsheet to reconcile stuff back and forth and self review your work in that way before you give it to me.

Excel presentation of data
Consider how you can present your 15 tabs of interim analysis, merging and copying and rearranging stuff that you used to prepare the desired analysis. If you can present your results in a simple and user friendly way that's excellent. For me that rarely includes graphs, mainly intelligently laid out tables. But then I prefer numbers to pictures.

Ideally I'd give formatting of documents to my PA but chances are I'm working on it late at night in front of the tv and need to send the client a draft befor my assistant is back at work so...knowing basic word stuff can make all the difference.

Headers/footers/table of contents/page numbers/watermarks/page breaks/ the fact that you can change orientation of single pages in a document to facilitate presentation of a table in landscape, how to embed files into a document.

The most useful thing a PA once showed me was how dumping a load of section breaks into a document can go a long way to curing any undesirable default formatting that results from our template designers using more advanced formatting options than your average accountant knows how to work with, forcing me to format stuff in specific ways that make it look horrendous because I don't know enough about Word to work with these default formatting options properly.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:16 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Personally, I give peeps bonus points if they realise that you can google most any excel problem and work out how to do stuff without asking me.

Definitely. I'm amazed how often this happens: a coworker calls me or stops by to ask an Excel question, I quickly google the answer which takes less than a minute and then walk over to their computer to solve the problem. I get all the credit.

I also did this with Illustrator recently, a program which I have never even used.
posted by mullacc at 7:35 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

It depends entirely on context. I work with some people who struggle with the concept of scrolling down a spreadsheet (really); using functions is virtually godlike in their eyes. But I've also worked places where people would begin to fidget and complain if they were doing something that didn't require a hand-crafted macro.

Basically if you can use Word and Excel at all you should claim at least proficiency. If in doubt, overstate your skills.
posted by Segundus at 8:36 AM on January 19, 2014

It depends on the industry and what you'll be doing. I personally think an advanced Excel user should be able to code simple procedures in VBA, or at the very least debug other people's macros. You sometimes encounter massive, convoluted spreadsheets filled with INDIRECT() and OFFSET() and INDEX() that are like some kind of Rube Goldberg machine that people have built to do something without using VBA, when a simple macro would have done the trick and been much easier to understand.
posted by pravit at 9:21 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Personally, I give peeps bonus points if they realise that you can google most any excel problem and work out how to do stuff without asking me.

This, absolutely. I could give a shit whether you "completed an advanced level Excel training course" because depending on how long ago that was and how well / frequently you've applied that knowledge since then, there's no telling how much of it you'll actually be able to pull out of your ass at a moment's notice.

I'd much rather someone understand the reasoning behind WHY to use a pivot table than just throwing them into a document for bullshit reasons (upper management I am giving you the side-eye so hard here). Same for why you use certain types of graphs and so forth (I'm nowhere near as proficient in Excel as Word these days since I'm more of a tech writer than a data wrangler).

For Word, if you're presenting yourself as an "advanced" Word user, you'd better be able to differentiate between centered tab stops and decimal tab stops, for instance, and why you'd use either one (if I had a dollar for every "advanced" Word user I've had to clean up after for using the fucking spacebar to line up a vertical list of numbers in a chemical specification table or financial statement, I'd be rich). You also need to demonstrate a decent grasp of style sheets and know how to modify / update them. You need to demonstrate an understanding of fonts and how to fix the default font within a document and also a cohesive grasp of why you use serif vs. san serif fonts and which ones are more appropriate for certain types of documents. I'd also like to see a competent understanding of footnotes / references / tables of contents and how to insert and update them. I don't care if you have to google the exact mechanics of what stupid ribbon bar spot to click on inside the program, what I'm really after is the understanding behind why you need to use these things and how the data that feeds them works.
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:25 AM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

To add to jadepearl's answer, staffing agencies have tests to evaluate what level you're at in regards to computer programs. A few weeks ago, I took tests for Microsoft Word and Excel and was surprised to get over 80 percent on both. (I thought I sucked at Excel, but suspect it's rather easy to figure out for me since I'm a young person.) The recruiter who noted down my results remarked that I could use the test print-outs for interviewers questioning my familiarity with those programs.

Could be worth looking into -- doing a specific test and having the results handy to show to interviewers. At the very least, be familiar with the technical language when explaining what you can do.
posted by myntu at 9:17 PM on March 12, 2014

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