Excel and Powerpoint proficiency and job applications
March 28, 2019 2:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm job hunting and while I've always been pretty good about applying to jobs that might be a little bit of a stretch for me, I never know how seriously to take listed qualifications like "proficiency in Powerpoint required" or "must have high-level Excel skills."

I've used Excel for years, but I'm not a wizard or anything like that. I know how to use it for the most basic kinds of things. I have zero Powerpoint skills. HOWEVER, I am a quick learner and have a learned a lot of database software and things like that over the years.
My question: if I think a job is perfect for me in other ways, how much of a dealbreaker are these kinds of requirements? How do these programs differ in terms of learning curve? If "proficiency" is asked for with a program I haven't used, does that mean it's still worth applying? BONUS POINT: is there good way to bring up that these are areas for improvement for me in an interview setting?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
PowerPoint is a piece of piss, just watch some YouTube tutorials and wing it, honestly. Google Slides is free and will let you experiment with the fundamentals (title pages, image fade-ins, whatever). "Experience with professional presentation software and keen to learn other packages" will be your card there. PowerPoint is literally just a framework for dragging-and-dropping stuff, and then moving it about incrementally so it looks reasonably neat.

I'm never quite sure what "high-level Excel skills" means, and in my experience it tends to just mean knowing how to use Excel, like, at all. Pivotcharts tend to impress people, so if you have access to Excel, maybe start playing around with those? I kind of hate Excel though, and find that if I'm not using it regularly I tend to forget how to do a lot of stuff, but it comes back quickly enough.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:37 PM on March 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

"I've never met an Excel problem I couldn't figure out" is one way to say this without actually saying this.

At least 85% of being "proficient" at a major piece of commonly used software is knowing how to use google effectively. 10% is knowing enough to know WHAT your problem is. The rest is font choice.

If you're clever enough to know what your goal is and you're good at googling, it's extremely unlikely you will ever come across a task in Excel or Powerpoint that you won't be able to answer. And then with time and repetition you'll actually get good at it.

It's absolutely baffling to me (as a person privileged enough to have had home access to a computer her entire life) how many people just SUCK at being able to google their way out of stuff. It's like they don't even know how to try. Workplaces are FULL of these people, and these are the people this type of phrasing is trying to avoid. That you know how to ask this question is a pretty good indicator you aren't one.
posted by phunniemee at 2:38 PM on March 28, 2019 [24 favorites]

I put a line in my last cover letter along the lines of "I have a knack for working with software and over the course of my career I have significantly improved my skills in Programs X Y and Z to meet the demands of specific projects. I've become my entire office's go-to person for any problems or unusual needs in these programs, and if I don't already know how to help them, I can almost always figure it out." It went down well - I got the job.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:49 PM on March 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

As another example of phunniemee's point, here's an article, My hiring experience as a submarine sonar operator in the Norwegian Navy illustrating the gap between what job requirements get listed, and what abilities jobs actually require.
At the end of the six weeks we got to choose which submarine we wanted to serve with. I had the highest score in the sonar operator test and normally this meant I would get first pick. But, the officer in charge seemed a bit hesitant and asked me: "wasn't there something wrong with your hearing?" I didn't want to lie. But I also didn't want to disqualify myself. I took a slight gamble and answered him with a question: would I have managed to get the best score on the sonar operator test if there was?

I guess that satisfied him, because instead of freezing my bottom off in Norway the following winter I was on the first Norwegian submarine to ever attend a NATO exercise in the Mediterranean.
In your case, "I am not afraid of software and can google things" is that actual ability, and the requirements are nonsense.
posted by batter_my_heart at 3:00 PM on March 28, 2019

For excel, you might want to poke around and get the basics - yes you can google your way out of almost any excel challenge but if it is really important to the job, they might test you in it as part of the interview. I’ve done that a couple of times when it really was a key part of the job and didn’t want someone who was faking it.
posted by scrute at 4:08 PM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's an online course away.
Also free classes at your library.
posted by jander03 at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Don't worry about PowerPoint if you're at all computer literate. Its so easy.

Excel is a trickier issue because sometimes these job descriptions mean "can use it at all" but sometimes they really do mean "write your own macros". Excel can be really complicated. Hardly anyone uses it like that but it's nit like no one does. You can get up to speed up to a regular-person-advanced-level with Lynda.com if you're feeling unsure.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:49 PM on March 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

"At least 85% of being 'proficient' at a major piece of commonly used software is knowing how to use google effectively."

This is absolutely correct. I got the reputation as an Excel expert at my old job because I knew how to do VLOOKUPs. My secret was that, when someone asked for a VLOOKUP, I would go back to my desk, google "how to do excel vlookup", and then do that. If you even know what a VLOOKUP, or a pivot table, is, you've got the level of expertise they're looking at.

You can develop basic PowerPoint expertise in about ten minutes. If you know how to point a cursor, type, and click a button that says "New Slide", you're pretty much good to go. Learn how to animate transitions, and you will actually blow people's minds.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:32 PM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

With Excel, it might not be a serious requirement at all. Office apps sometimes gets added into job postings as filler.

However, it might also mean that the previous person in the job did crazy, difficult-to-figure out things in Excel and they're expecting the new person to figure the mess out. The pressure might increase if business functions have a dependency on the spreadsheets left behind. Something to consider on your side. (Also possible that that sort of puzzle solving is something you'd like, in which case, go for it.)
posted by gimonca at 5:35 PM on March 28, 2019

There are assessments online. Consider studying and getting the Microsoft Office Specialist certification if you expect to work in offices. I've been an employer and everybody says they learn fast, and it's nice to be reassured. Try to get an employer to pay for the test if you go for any certification.

Your library will have a computer with Office. Go do a tutorial or 2 on Ppoint. Make a presentation on a subject you know about, or about rocket surgery. done.

Excel is a powerful tool that can do all sorts of stuff; learning to use it well is a great idea. I find the best tutorials on sites from education institutions, and they don't try to sell you. Constrain your search by using site:*.edu. Can you create a payroll sheet for 5 workers, with hours, rate of pay and calculating any overtime, wages, and summing it. Put in a cell with a proposed pay increase so you can model the budget impact. Use absolute and relative cell references. Add a chart with a title and labels. This would be my baseline for Excel competence.

Look at some Excel cheat sheets. How much of it do you know? I'd go to the library and do a bunch of tutorials. Adult Ed. usually has classes, maybe the local Jobs office. Put your loans and budget into a spreadsheet for practice.
posted by theora55 at 5:43 PM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Those requirements are essentially meaningless. If a job requires you to really be some kind of excel or powerpoint ninja they'll list the kind of deliverables they're looking for in the job description (e.g. experience building calculus based algorithm tools). Even then, there's got to be a tutorial online, if not a bunch of templates from previous projects laying around.
posted by xammerboy at 7:48 PM on March 28, 2019

Just resist the temptation to lie about knowing Excel. Watch some cornball YouTube tutorials on half-speed and follow along a la “Joy of Painting.” Know some formulas, know pivot tables, know that it’s actually not “faster” to physically print out the spreadsheet and hand-write the values into the cells, SUSAN.

AHEM. Sorry.

If you’re going into a non-accounting role, these skills will put you ahead of competition who did lie about it. I spend a lot of time wiping up after non-accountants who openly giggle to my face that they lied about their Excel chops to get their jobs.

It takes so little time not to be a Susan. Pretty soon you’ll be dreaming in Excel and not even hating it. It’s actually like Tetris; it gets under your skin that way.
posted by armeowda at 10:20 PM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Excel - people who actually are proficient can always tell when they look at a file created or maintained by somebody who is not proficient. But depending on your role proficient can mean different things. So brush up on some of the basics and yes, Google.

PowerPoint is easy but is also the single biggest time suck, especially if you don’t know functions that can help. Fundamentally, it is a huge waste of time. In an ideal world I’d only write presentation content and hand that over to somebody who will make it look pretty. My reality is that I have to write content and dump it into my organisation’s templates and then make it so that it fits the format and the audience can actually take on board the messages. And as a result I had to learn aspects of the tool, nobody ever taught me and I google what I am trying to do. My decks will look neat but never be fancy. So if you’re applying for a job where a large part of your role is to make fancy presentations you actually need to know how to make it so. If your job is X but occasionally you have to put a few slides together to present your latest project and you can absolutely wing it, as long as you allow about twice as much time as you think you’ll need.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:03 AM on March 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

It really depends on the role; in finance service industries; you are expected to be actually proficient in excel and powerpoint, to the point where you shouldn't ever have to use your mouse to get around an excel spreadsheet, as well as are expected to be able to present decks that are both effective for messaging on a screen and print well (you know, in addition to the actual job description). When I hire, we test for excel skills in the first round of in person interviews (vlookups, pivot tables, simple logic), but generally hope that presentation skills are fine; new hires are usually asked to make a presentation in the first week, and then helped along as necessary.... Watching things like the visuals below, and understanding why they work puts you leaps and bounds above the competition. (Also it makes your work "corporate" with like 30 seconds of work).

2nding that presentations always take about 2-3x more time than you think they will, and part of making a good presentation is taking the time to do it right.

Taking away formatting to make charts cleaner
Cleaning up tables
design principles
posted by larthegreat at 6:03 AM on March 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, the shibboleth of "advanced" excel (or really, just actual usage) is VLOOKUP. And pivot tables. Both can be learned very quickly and by googling. Usually if they're looking for more they list the technical skills that are required, i.e. macros.

I've never seen powerpoint mean anything more than "you should be computer literate," granted designing a truly beautiful and convincing powerpoint presentation would require both significant amounts of skill and probably natural talent.
posted by scribbler at 4:20 PM on March 29, 2019

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