I might not have the skills for the job — should I point that out to my interviewer?

A reader writes:

I just had a second interview with a company I am pretty excited about working for. I’m not in a position at my current job where I feel like I have to leave, so there isn’t a lot of pressure. I was relaxed and felt I had some good banter going on during the interview while staying professional and trying to sell myself.

There were a few skills listed in the job posting that I assumed they would ask about or maybe even test me on. I received “homework” after the first phone interview so I felt they were really trying to nail down some skills and weed out those who didn’t pass. But one of the skills the job posting — the one I feel that maybe I don’t possess at the level they want — is a “high level” with Excel, and they didn’t test me on that. I am okay at Excel but comfortable enough to know I can google anything I need to know.

Anyway, I came out of the interview feeling good but realized later that they didn’t address any of those skills. Does it make sense now to reach out and express some of my worries about not having the level of skills they need? Do I wait to hear back and address it when they’re potentially going to offer me the job? Is a job posting usually enough for people to self-select out if they don’t possess every skill needed?

You’re right to worry that the job posting listed skills that you might not have, and which haven’t been tested or discussed. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a problem, but you’re right to be thinking about it — because you don’t want to end up in a job you struggle in.

People don’t always think this through! A lot of people figure they can bluff their way into a job and figure it out as they go along — as if the only goal is to get the job, rather than to get a job they’ll excel at (and not be fired from).

It would be nice to be able to assume that if you don’t have the skills needed for the job, the employer will figure that out and not hire you. But many employers suck at interviewing and won’t figure it out at all — until you’re working there, at which point it will be a problem. So as with all aspects of interviewing, you should be taking an active role in figuring out if this is the right job for you and if you’re going to be able to thrive there — not just waiting for the employer to render a verdict.

Often people worry about pointing out their weaknesses as a candidate, and worry about doing something that will torpedo their chances at the job. But you should want to torpedo your chances at a job you won’t do well at — and having an honest conversation about fit is the best way to end up in a job that you’ll do well in.

So, when the job posting asked for a high level of skill with X and you’re more in the camp of “that might not be me, but also I might be able to figure it out as I go,” the thing to do is to ask about it. Say something like this: “I wanted to ask about the level of Excel needed for this job. The job posting said you were looking for strong Excel skills. I’d say I’m more intermediate — I can do formulas and put together basic spreadsheets but have never had to do, for example, pivot tables or conditional formatting. I’m pretty good at figuring things out as I go, and I’ve been able to Google a lot of what I need for Excel. But if you’re looking for someone who can do, say, macros and pivot tables right off the bat, that’s likely not me.”

If you’re uncomfortable declaring “that’s likely not me” in a job interview, other ways to say this are: “I wasn’t sure if you’re looking for someone who can do X right off the bat” or “Are you looking for someone who will come in with a deep background in Y?” or “How much of an obstacle would you expect my experience level in Z to be?”

In some cases you’ll hear, “Oh, that’s fine — with your background in X, you’ll be able to pick it up with no problem.” But in other cases you’ll learn that the job really does require a skill level you don’t have, and that’s really important information for you to have as you’re evaluating whether or not this is the right role for you.

Ideally you’d have this conversation in the job interview itself, but if you didn’t, it’s fine to bring it up if they make you an offer (before you accept, as part of your overall discussion). You’d frame it as, “I’m really excited about the job but wanted to clarify something about the role.”

{ 171 comments… read them below }

  1. President Porpoise

    Wait, are macros, conditional formatting and pivot tables advanced skills? Sweet.

    1. AnotherCorporateStooge

      my thought exactly! I am acing this excel stuff if that’s the advanced stuff!

      1. gyrfalcon

        I think “high level” in Excel is a pretty vague term. So it could be useful for OP to ask what employer includes in that term, before even having to self-identify as to how much she meets it.

        1. Cobol

          Was going to say this. Sometimes high level just means more than the recruiter or hitting manager knows.

          1. Lance

            This, and for a tool like Excel, which is fairly simple at its base level, a knowledge and willingness to look things up when you don’t necessarily know how to do them, I think, is a point in OP’s favor. I’ve known several people without even that much ability, who then believe they’re better at these things than they actually are.

            1. Cobol

              Pshhhhh wasn’t even my best typo on Ask A Manager today. My phone wanted obvious reason to be pancho treason. At least I caught that one. :)

          2. RUKiddingMe

            Pretty much anything Excel would be more than *I know so anyone’s abilities are “magic” AFAIC…

            *I can do the most basic tables and maybe a couple simple charts…it’s a love/hate relationship. Mostly hate.

            1. Sled dog mama

              My boss apparently can’t add in excel. Got a spreadsheet sheet from him the other day and even the totals were entered numbers, trying not to wonder how much time he wasted on putting that in excel.

            2. Perse's Mom

              My ability to do relatively simple tasks like break a numeric 19590712 DOB into its component parts and put it back together as 7/12/1959 is a celebrated feat in my department. Most of us don’t need more than sort/filter!

          3. MsChanandlerBong

            Exactly. It differs so much from place to place. I once had a hiring manager think I was a genius because I could use =SUM(A1:A10) in an Excel sheet. That’s like Excel Day 1 stuff! Another person hired me solely based on the fact that I was the only interviewee who knew that Ctrl+E was the shortcut combo for centering text in Word. I felt great when he told me, but I quickly realized that it was NOT a good thing. He was so obsessed with not “wasting” time that he micromanaged how I typed everything. I had to use abbreviations in our chats and emails (even though it took me LONGER b/c I had to stop and think about using an abbreviation vs. just naturally typing the phrase–and I type 110 WPM, so it’s not like I would have been losing much time anyway!), or he would yell at me.

        2. Anon for now

          Yeah. I hate vague qualifications like that. At least include some examples so that people know if they are in the ballpark. So many people don’t even know what all excel can do so they would say “I’m totally advanced!” followed by “What is a macro?”

        3. President Porpoise

          Yep. It may be that the job requires extensive VBA coding – or it may mean that you can figure out how to nest IF statements and make charts. Ask before panicking.

          1. Steve

            My comment supports this and other comments from many people about ‘advanced excel’ being ambiguous, and the LW would do well to clarify:
            I have a lot of experience with VBA coding, some of it quite complex, and yet I have no idea how to do conditional formatting.
            There are things I can do, and others I have never had to learn, so I just google them to learn more.

            1. JSPA

              Correct. at the end of the interview, or after they make an offer, I’d say: “At an advanced level, people use Excel very differently, and specialize in different aspects and tools. Many of my Excel skills are excellent. Others are merely solid–or they might also be excellent, depending what version(s) of Excel you’re using. Is there someone I can talk to who’d know the nitty-gritty technical details, so I’d be sure to be excellent in every relevant portion of Excel by my start date?”

              For some people, it’s a programming interface of sorts; for others, it’s a pseudo stats package; for others, it’s a graphics and charts generating tool. And then, some people will be thrilled that you can reformat a bunch of mailing addresses and sort them on multiple criteria, or know which versions will or will not easily transpose rows and columns.

              So the useful question isn’t, “am I good enough,” it’s “how will I be using it in this situation.”

              (IMO, Conditional formatting is super simple except when it creates bugs because you forgot it was there.)

              1. Steve

                Agreed with everything, including that conditional formatting is likely super simple. I guess my thought is that I have some very advanced Excel skills and yet I am missing a lot of basic and intermediate skills. So a company which doesn’t know better, and asks for ‘advanced skills’ yet is really only interested in basic and intermediate ones, might initially be concerned about my inability to know how to do the basics (I know how to do some, but almost everything I have learned in the past 5 years is in VBA – I can do conditional formatting, but as code). In theory, if I started a new job without having discussed this, it could be quite funny to sort out expectations.

                I think the happiest I have ever made someone at work was when I offered to help with Excel (twice I have experienced joy in a way which I never expected for working with their data). The one guy saw my results and said “If it wasn’t inappropriate and awkward, I would totally hug you right now!” I think it’s one of my funniest quotes when I think about the impact of my work.

          2. Mary

            Excel is also a totally different programme depending on what you use or for. My friend who is a chartered accountant has high-level Excel skills, and so does my friend who has a PhD in biology, but the data they handle and the analyses they run have very little crossover.

          3. Kathleen_A

            Yeah, I’d maybe call myself “intermediate” (and I don’t even know what VBA coding is), but I am really good at graphs! Excel does a lot of things, and knowledge of some doesn’t necessarily equate to knowledge of all. Not by a long shot.

          4. cheese please

            FWIW I would hope a job posting would differentiate between Excel skills and VBA coding skills, since they are very different. Using software isn’t the same as coding even when they’re used together sometimes. Additionally, VBA can be used beyond Excel to do really complex (and fascinatingly cool) things and should rightly be it’s own skill listed separately on a resume.

          5. AnnaBananna

            Yep. My job required ‘advanced’ excel. Coming from a finance background, I was like ‘i got this’. Well, 5 years later…what they called advanced was really how to communicate data in an appealing way. So…more graphic design than advanced excel, in truth.

            We forget that hiring managers oftentimes hire us because they don’t WANT to learn this stuff themselves – but which they ascribe a super high value to, which is often overinflated.

        4. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people

          Yeah, my idea of “high level Excel skills” are the people who basically use it as a way to write applications that might otherwise be stand-alone computer programs. I wouldn’t assume that I have “high level Excel skills” if that’s a thing in a job posting because I haven’t written anything particularly complex along those lines. I think it comes down to that I know how to do a bunch of things in Excel, but I am also aware that if I put the time into learning it there are a lot of other things Excel could also do that I’m not using it for right now. Those things are things I either use a different solution for (I have some other programs I use for a lot of the things I want to do with stats, for example) or don’t need to do often enough for the time spent learning how to automate them to make sense in my current job.

        5. Environmental Compliance

          Super vague. It was included in my current job’s description, and I’ve made tables. Apparently the use of formulas was Amazing, and the fact I wrote a very basic macro (hey, it’s been a while since I took a class on them) was Befuddling.

          High level pretty much just means “something that makes no sense to the person who wrote this description” at this point.

        6. Green great dragon

          Definitely! I do macros and conditional formatting and pivot tables regularly, but I would hesitate to call myself advanced having seen what some of my team can make it do. But others find vlookup near magic…

        7. NotAnotherManager!

          It’s super-vague. I am a big fan of Excel and think that anyone who’s not into math (me!) should know and love it. I also have a posting up now for a job where someone needs to be proficient with it for basic office use, but I threw in a short parenthetical with the types of tasks Excel would be required for so it was clear I need someone who knows their way around formulas, conditional formatting, and pivot tables, not macros and VB scripting.

        8. Akcipitrokulo

          Agreed. I’ve known people who think macros are just intermediate and others that think basic formulas with some static cells are the pinnacle of excel skills. It’s best to ask!

        9. MCMonkeyBean

          Yeah, I know that there is SO MUCH that Excel can do that I don’t know about–but I think in 90% of cases if a job posting in my field (finance) says they want people with a “high” level of excel then my knowledge of PivotTables and Vlookups is really the type of thing they are looking for.

          And honestly the ability to google what you don’t know is pretty significant for Excel use. I have been able to solve a lot of problems no one else on my team could fix that way!

    2. Booklover13

      Agreed, I usually rank excel skills like so:

      Basics: Can enter Data

      Beginner: Can locate basic formatting and use basic math formulas with =,+,* ect as well has super simple ones like SUM

      High Beginner: Can use some of the more popular complex formulas like vlookup and simple IF statements, understands concepts like locking cells and conditional formatting

      Intermediate: Can do Pivot Tables, and most formulas. Is able to google successfully and apply that knowledge, can troubleshoot formulas. Can record a basic macro.

      High Intermediate: Can use/make Visual Basic macros at all. Can google a more complicated macro and make a Franken-Macro that works.

      Expert: Writes own Macro, answers questions on excel boards. Knows how to us most features presented with

      High Expert: “We don’t need to pay for that, I can write something in excel that will work” is actually true

      1. bippity-boppity-bacon

        As someone who codes regularly, but has typically avoided excel, I had no idea it could even DO most of the stuff you name here. (And I have no idea what a pivot table is.) From my experience, so many people can’t even manage the beginner level stuff and are just so afraid of computers that they don’t have the hard-won skill of google-foo. So ‘can do simple stuff and google the rest’ already would seem fairly expert to non-users. It’s definitely important to know the context for ‘high-level’.

        1. TechWorker

          Gonna put it out there (potentially gaining the wrath of excel fiends ;)) that just because you can do something in excel doesn’t mean you should.

          1. Gaia

            Fact.

            Says the girl who just had to explain (again) that Excel is not a database but the program you pay a lot of money for each year is, in fact, a database and maybe we should use that?

              1. Perse's Mom

                Until you get into Shared files where a dozen people are in there at once and the data grows and then it takes minutes just to load the thing and it constantly freezes. *eye twitching* And occasionally someone accidentally moves the thing. Or deletes it! Because heaven forfend anyone think about having IT lock it down no matter how many times it’s happened before.

            1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people

              No, silly, if you need a database you use Google Sheets so everyone can work in it at once!*

              *This is not what you do if you need a database. It is, however, what you do if you want me to have a pained expression on my face, and sometimes I also get those from working with databases, so maybe by the transitive property…

          2. Blue Horizon

            Agreed. I would be an expert on this scale, but I don’t usually admit to a lot of it, because (a) my experience was a long time ago and (b) it gives people bad ideas that I then need to talk them out of.

            I would also agree that the definition of ‘expert’ is very context dependent. It can mean anything from “we’d like somebody that can do that cool thing I saw where the cells turn red if the number is negative” up to “I have created a layered series of Excel formulas and macros that collectively solve a really complex scientific computing problem in a way that nobody in the world but me understands, and now I need somebody to help me overcome the limitations that my poor choice of technology has imposed on me.”

            1. Angelinha

              Yeah, when I applied for my government job I had to rank my Excel skills and only people with sufficient self-ratings would get into the interview pool – although of course they didn’t tell us what the minimum requirements were. I had listed myself as “Intermediate” and my boyfriend pushed me to say I was “Advanced” even though that wasn’t how I’d have rated myself. He swore he’d just teach me whatever I needed to know if I came up lacking. I got the job and turns out the advanced Excel training I so desperately needed was…wait for it….filtering spreadsheets for my boss and sending them back to her with the filter on. Omg. (That said, my boyfriend did then teach me the basics of pivot tables and vlookups and it has made my job WAY easier, not that my boss has any idea what I’m doing.)

          3. bippity-boppity-bacon

            Hence why I typically avoid Excel :)

            If someone for some reason gives me data in an excel file, I can just as easily read it into python and avoid all of the overhead entirely.

          4. Anonomoose

            +1 I deeply, deeply miss the 2 million row (cell? ) limit that Excel previously had, as it functioned as a rather excellent artificial stupidity limiter.

            There’s a joke in bioinformatics:
            What’s big data?
            When it doesn’t fit into an excel sheet anymore.

            It’s sadly true…

        2. Twenty Points for the Copier

          yeah, I agree. According to this, I am probably a high beginner or intermediate (I don’t use vlookup or pivot tables, though). I worked with one guy who had real serious excel skills but other than that, everyone I’ve worked with comes to me with their excel questions because I know how to sort and convert things from allcaps to proper formatting. They have no idea most of those higher level functions exist so they think I am an expert. While I would never position myself for a job as one, I could easily see an “excel expert” job posting really just mean someone who knows how to sort and filter and doesn’t realize that’s the tip of the iceberg.

        3. Longtime Lurker

          You’re like me. I can use Excel sheets that someone else created and use them to organize data, but that’s about it. I work in data entry at the moment but we use proprietary website and software to enter the actual data. I’m looking for a job in graphic design and I can code HTML, so never really used Excel a lot. Also don’t have it at home, so can’t really practice. I use Libre Office at home and it has an Excel-like program bundled with it.

        4. Akcipitrokulo

          Pivot tables are SO COOL!

          Basically when someone showed me them, I was like “oh… so it does all the stuff I was writing macros for by itself? Sweet….”

        5. TardyTardis

          And here I thought splitting out one amount of property tax over all the entities in a resort (including projects still in the middle of getting built, golf club I’m looking at you) was kickass…

      2. That Would be a Good Band Name

        I like this ranking. Mainly because I’ve been understating my skills.

      3. Ramblin' Ma'am

        Yeah, I usually think of myself as an Intermediate Excel user and my skills fit pretty well with what you’ve listed here.

      4. Sarah

        I think the words “we don’t need to pay for that, I can write something in Excel that will work” have literally come out of my mouth. ;)

        1. FD

          I’ve both said and done that, but usually with the caveat “That will work FOR NOW, but when we grow beyond a certain point, we’re going to need to pay for a better solution.”

          1. TardyTardis

            I hear you, I can manage an big Excel spreadsheet of Democrats in my county pretty fine for basics like sending out ‘send us money’ letters, but for the really crazy stuff I’ll use Votebuilder or VAN.

        2. Anonomoose

          As a tech person that gets a lot of obscure, business critical excel sheets dumped on them when people leave, because ” you know computers”, you’d better be documenting exactly how your sheet works, or the curse of sysadmins will be on you forever*

          *May your help tickets always fall to the bottom of the list, your electronic devices fail to work unless they’re currently being diagnosed, and all your computer problems happen at ten past five on a Friday.

      5. FD

        I mostly agree, but even within this you get so much variation.

        For example, I regularly write my own VBA macros from scratch and have made fairly complex solutions for our business needs with Excel…but I still don’t entirely get pivot tables and never bother with them.

        1. Anomalous

          Your description fit me until a few years ago, when I finally took a few hours to learn how pivot tables worked. They really are quite useful, and learning to use them is worth your time.

    3. Coffee Owlccountant

      Agreed! And also, I’d immediately be asking what version of Excel you’re using. Because I consider myself an expert level in Excel, but if you sit me in front of any version of Excel from before the ribbon (was that 2007? can’t remember), I have no idea where ANYTHING is anymore and probably look like a loony fraud trying to figure it out.

      1. MsSolo

        Mine is after the ribbon. I could do so many more things when I understood the logic behind the menus, but even after a decade I still don’t get why Pivot Tables are under Insert on the ribbon. I know that all my old skills are accessible in there somewhere, but damned if I can find the launch points any more!

      2. Nosh

        Ugh, I had a job interview task where I realized this – opened Access to find it was like three versions old and nothing was where I expected it to be! It went about as well as you’d expect.

  2. AnotherCorporateStooge

    Where’s that article that says men apply to jobs if they feel they are 50% qualified for it and women only do so if they feel 100% qualified? Sure, you can mention it at some point during the interview, but it’s excel… youtube videos galore or just take a free tutorial online… at least when it comes to excel, it shouldn’t be a software that holds you back…

    1. CmdrShepard4ever

      Proficiency in excel is subjective. But OP should try to find out what specific skill set they are looking for. OP does not want to find themselves in a Joey situation and have to try and fashion a sweater out of salami. While the excel skills can be learned, the job might not allow time for OP to learn all those skills.

    2. BlackbeltJones

      Never express doubt!

      All I know is, when I express something like, “I haven’t used X in a long time, but I’m very good at it…” I get hired anyway, but at a lower rate. On a contract once, the cost to me was $5-10/hr. I could have kicked myself. I hope I’ve finally learned a lesson. (Of course, I’m female.)

    3. Elizabeth West

      Well actually…

      In my case, it does hold me back. I can’t do the math itself or the abstract mathematical thinking necessary to construct anything but the most basic formulas and figure out what math processes needed to produce results. So I have to self-select out on anything that asks for a high level of Excel. Or I have to ask questions about what “working with spreadsheets” or “processing data [expenses, etc.]” means in a job description.

      It could be data entry, or data validation (matching it up to make sure it’s accurate), at which I’d be fine. Or it could mean figuring out how to arrive at the requested results from the data I’m given (like in a word problem) and constructing the spreadsheet to produce those results, which ain’t gonna happen, because that part of my brain is broken.

      Excel is basically a big calculator that prints reports. If you don’t understand the math you’re inputting into the calculator, nothing you get back is going to be accurate. Oh, and I can’t tell why it’s wrong, either. Whee!

      1. JSPA

        In previous posts, I think you’ve mentioned that you know this is…well, not rare, but also not terribly common. Also, that it’s something that you became aware of fairly early in your educational and work life. So it’s probably not relevant for OP (they’d know if that were the case for them, and would not feel competent to pick up just about anything by googling and youtube).

        As a parallel, if there’s a requirement that someone be able to lift 20 lbs occasionally, and the applicant can lift 15 with ease… sure, they COULD have a medical condition that makes it inadvisable to lift 20 lbs–which they would know about!–but if they don’t say so, it’s reasonable for us to advise them that, given a couple of weeks with a set of weights, they’ll be more than buff enough to lift 20 lbs with the same ease they now lift 15 lbs.

        1. Busy

          LOL I don’t think its as common for people to be aware of what they are actually capable of! For instance, really think about in an organization how many people actually have to use excel on a high level? Not many, right? So the rest of those people may believe they are great at excel, simply because they are not aware of everything else excel does. I think enough studies have shown that people are not typically great at assessing what they are good at vs what they are not good at.

    4. Blue Horizon

      My main problem with that article is that conclusion that people draw from it, namely that the women are wrong and should be more like the men.

      I am a fan of accurately representing your skills and knowledge. Yes, you shouldn’t underplay them or devalue yourself, but overstating them can be just as damaging if not more so. In my opinion “Fake it till you make it” (one of the stereotypical male skills that women are so often advised to emulate) has caused more disasters than possibly any other advice in history.

      I am aware that sometimes women have no choice but to emulate negative male behaviors in order to advance professionally, but I see this as a regrettable (and hopefully impermanent) aspect of modern business culture rather than a deficiency in the women in question. Of all of the ways to learn something, pretending that you know already and trying to work it out as you go is one of the least efficient and most likely to cause catastrophic collateral damage at some point. We need to start viewing it as a flaw to be corrected, and treat repeat offenders and the unrepentant like the pariahs they deserve to be, instead of elevating them to high leadership roles and celebrating them as heroes.

      (Full disclosure: I am male, and have more of a problem personally with downplaying my capabilities than overstating them. But I could quote a LOT of evidence in support of my view on “fake it till you make it.”)

      1. FD

        I’m a woman, and I think it’s more of a ‘meet in the middle’ thing. Many men over-estimate how much they can learn on the fly, but I find many women under-estimate how much they can learn on the fly.

        I think the reason that this result is concerning particularly is that job posts are often a laundry list of skills that the employer would like to have. It’s often not transparent from the outside whether every skill is equally important or if only a few are truly decisive. In my experience, it’s not that rare for there to be a list of ten skills, but two or three of them are what really matter to the employer. They’d love to get someone who checked all the boxes, but they’d settle for less.

        This phenomenon may lead to women who would have been a really good fit to not apply at all, restricting themselves to positions that are less of a stretch. Since taking stretch positions tends to be a big way many people advance, it potentially slows down some women’s careers needlessly.

        1. Blue Horizon

          Yes, that’s a fair comment, and I’m certainly not against pursuing stretch roles as long as you’re up front about it. I applied a while back for a role that was obviously a wish list and required something like 10 skills, many of them very specialized or uncommon. I had maybe 8 of them, and was struck by how good a fit it was for me (and the interviewers all commented on it as well). If I had decided not to apply based on the 20% of skills I didn’t have, then I would have been doing myself a disservice.

          It helps a bit if you’ve been on the recruiting side in some capacity (the person they are describing here probably doesn’t exist, what’s the closest we can reasonably find, and would they be acceptable?)

        2. An Elephant Never Baguettes

          I’ve seen some job ads where the requirements are listed as basically must-have, should-have, would-be-nice-to-have and while I’m sure there’s pros and cons regarding this, it’s always helped me a lot.

      2. Jennifer Thneed

        “Fake it ’til you make it” is great for things like confidence in a new role, or comfort wearing suits. Attitude stuff. Not so much actual measurable skills.

      3. Akcipitrokulo

        I think moment I clinched job in recent interview was when we discussing what I could do – I said “I can do x but not x with y. Yet.”

    5. Daisy

      Yeah, I agree with AAM’s basic point, but when it’s something super common like Excel… and super vague, like ‘high level’… I’d just roll with it, honestly. Guaranteed every other applicant is just keeping their fingers and toes crossed and hoping what they’ve got is ‘high’.

      And if it was actually a really major part of the job, it would have come up already. Half the time it seems like Excel is a ‘nice to have’ thrown in the grab bag of requirements by whoever’s writing the description.

      1. quirkypants

        I think I’d only role with it if I knew I could get to a higher level relatively quickly lately “on my own” . And I’d suggest the same for job candidates. I am self taught in Excel to a fairly advanced level but not everyone can get there on their own or do it quickly, a critical component is knowing your own strengths/weaknesses when making those evaluations.

    6. MCMonkeyBean

      Recently I was looking at job postings and kept thinking things like “well they have this one bullet listed that I’m not sure I’d be perfect for.” Helpfully, my current team is short staffed already so there is a job posting for basically my exact job online. I read it and was like “dang, if I just came across this I would not feel qualified at all to apply–but I know I’m doing a good job and my bosses are really happy with my work!” It made me feel a lot more willing to apply for things I didn’t feel immediately 100% perfect for.

  3. Canonical23

    Alison’s advice is spot-on. There’s nothing wrong with asking for some clarification about the skills that they want, because for all you know, they see an “advanced” level of Excel proficiency as being able to use it beyond just entering data into cells.

    1. Dana B.S.

      In particular because you don’t feel like you have to leave your current situation – no sense in rushing into something without knowing all the facts!

  4. Cobol

    It’s also worth noting there’s a difference if you’re dealing with a staffing firm as part of the process. Sometimes The list there will be all encompassing.

  5. Sam

    I would probably ask for more specifics, not lay out that I’m intermediate right away – to me, what Alison lists are basic skills, as opposed to intermediate or advanced, and I think that you might end up in that same position if you undersell yourself.

    Get an idea of what they mean by “advanced” before assuming your skills don’t measure up!

    1. Kiwiii

      This exactly. My current position listed Proficient Excel Skills right in the skills section, but it turned out that they were just hoping I could be taught to create pivot tables, follow existing directions to format some data-dump reports from large databases into useable information, and catch errors in simple formulas. Like, yes, apparently I’m at least Proficient.

    2. Ferris

      I agree. Get the info that *you* need to decide if it’s a fit for you. You don’t need to show weakness to them or feed them any doubts about you.

    3. Elle Kay

      Yes, this exactly! I wouldn’t suggest what *you* consider to be basic/advanced Excel skills.
      I would suggest something like “I’m really excited about the job but wanted to get some clarity about the Excel needs that were listed in the description. I’ve realized that we didn’t go over that part of the role and I’m wondering what kind of tasks would be involved?”

      Excel in particular seems to be one of those things where some people think it’s all magic and some people think it’s all pretty basic so the definition of “advanced” can vary *greatly*

  6. YRH

    If you aren’t comfortable framing the initial conversation in relation to your skills, you can always ask an open ended question like “Can you tell me more about the types of things this position does in Excel?” and respond with a statement along the lines of “I really enjoy doing A and B. I haven’t actually done C before, but I’ve found that X and Y are great resources for learning Excel functionalities. I actually taught myself how to do D and E using those.”

    1. Eleanor Konik

      This seems like a very reasonable framing and a sensible way to approach the issue without too much risk of torpedoing your chances needlessly.

    2. ket

      I too think this is the best framing, and have used such a framing myself in a similar context.

  7. Lance

    ‘rather than to get a job they’ll excel at’

    I hope I’m not the only one who got a bit of a chuckle out of the possible double meaning here (given the OP’s concern is regarding their Excel proficiency).

    1. Elle Kay

      Heehee, yes I did notice that & I’m thrilled that someone else also felt the need to comment on it!

  8. Fortitude Jones

    Ahhh, the old Excel proficiency problem – I know it well. I once interviewed for a vendor auditing position at a major bank where having advanced Excel skills was a requirement, and I am nowhere near intermediate, much less advanced. Still, I was recruited by an internal HR rep for the role (she was scrolling through the company’s resumes they had on file, saw mine, and thought my experience in foreclosures would be a good fit for the foreclosure vendor audit team), so I applied and figured I’d tell the hiring manager flat out I didn’t have those skills.

    When I got to the interview, that was one of my first questions when it came time for her to ask me if I had any questions for her. I said, “I have very basic Excel skills, and I don’t have a clue what a pivot table is – is this going to be a problem? Because if so, I’m not the right person for this job.” She laughed and said that, while pivot tables would be a tool used in the position, the company has online Excel training I could attend if hired, so I could work on it – she was more impressed with my experience with a certain vendor they used for their foreclosure cases, and so having that subject matter expertise was more important to her at the moment.

    I ended up passing on that job for other reasons (mainly, I took an internal promotion at the company I was already working for), but I learned a great lesson from it – always be honest about your skill level, ask questions, and be ready to pass on a job if your shortcomings will be an issue. Hell, when I interviewed for my current job, I told them upfront, “I’m not a designer, so if you want your content creators to also be able to design charts and graphics, I’m not your girl,” and they ended up hiring me anyway because we have a team of graphic designers (didn’t know this at the time I applied) that we can put design requests into. It would have been a “nice to have” for them rather than an absolute need.

    1. Sally

      I think this happens more often than we might assume. When I was job searching last year, I really wanted to make sure I would land someplace I wanted to be, so I asked questions like these. I wanted them to know what they were getting, and I needed to know what was most important to them. It was a little scary because they could have said I wasn’t the right person for that position, but I agree with Alison. If that’s the case, it’s better to know now than to find out after you have left your old job and started the new one.

      My team once hired someone who had trouble doing a test teach in PowerPoint. We figured out some rationalization as to why she had difficulty and hired her anyway. Turns out she didn’t really know much about any of the Office Suite of applications (this was in the early 2000s), so we had to let her go and start hiring all over again. I wasn’t the manager then, but I learned a lot from that experience.

      1. Fortitude Jones

        See, and I had to Google what a test teach is, lol. But yeah, that sucks when someone really has zero knowledge of a basic suite of applications that have been around forever and doesn’t tell an employer that upfront – a firing looks way worse than just being/staying unemployed.

        1. TechWorker

          I also googled what a ‘test teach’ was – and got nowhere :D does anyone have a link to satisfy my own curiosity/teach me something new about PowerPoint…?

      2. Sally

        Sorry! A test teach is when a trainer teaches the interviewers (and other volunteers in the office) for 15 minutes. They can pick any topic they want, and it’s how we decide if they can teach competently in front of a group. We can also see how they respond to questions they do/don’t know the answers to. I’m sure there are other terms for it, but that’s what I’ve always called it.

  9. Quinalla

    Agreed that you should clarification on what they mean by high level excel skills as some folks think I’m an excel wiz and I think I’m pretty basic.

    But yes, the job I am in currently, I was 100% upfront about what I did have experience in and did not and also that I was enthusiastic to learn more in those areas. It served me well to be up front so they knew where I would need more initial training and where I could excel immediately and I’ve continued to be up front when I don’t know something so I can ask questions and learn.

    Especially when you are in a position where you are interviewing while already having a job that you aren’t desperate to leave, you should be even more up front about this stuff. And don’t fall into the trap of forgetting to interview them. You want to make sure the role is a good fit from your perspective.

  10. TPS Cover Sheet

    The job specifications if you actually believe them want you to have a PhD level in Excel, when in reality the office had disabled the macros since 2005 due to viruses… I just applied for a Business Analyst job that wanted PRINCE 2 in project management. If I had a P-2, I wouldn’t even fart in the general direction of a BA job…

    1. Akcipitrokulo

      They aren’t related! (Tester with some BA… have no intention of doing PM because I would suck at it an not enjoy it.)

      1. TPS Cover Sheet

        Exactly. I applied for 2 jobs… One ”year long” – its a council job it means you reapply for your own job when the budget comes in so permanent sort-of and a 6 month cover. Both have the same specs and probably a 3-person panel interview if I get that far. The interesting bit was the 12-month role had then an extra addendum with all this project management crap jimmied in. So it looks like they have a set role criteria and are actually trying to hire to a role that doesn’t ”fit in the box” so they need to advertise it as a Business Analyst, as they have a budget for that, but they really need someone as a PM… actually there was a £10.000 budget responsibility mentioned and all kinds of ”definitely not a business analyst” tasks. More like a program manager by the sounds of it… on a BA salary…

  11. boredatwork

    Excel has such a wide breath of knowledge and really depends on the skills of the person asking the question. I would suggest asking how you would actually be using excel, because some people don’t even know what match/index is or how to use it.

    My definition of advanced excel is writing macros, power query, power pivot and being able to use the power BI functionality to create reports/analytical tools. But, based on the tech conference I just attended, everyone with “advanced” excel skills are actually moving away from using excel.

    1. Jules the 3rd

      yeah, Excel has been the point in between a calculator and real databases since pivot tables came in, and now the datasets are getting so large and the analysis requirements so complex that people want more than Excel can do.

      1. boredatwork

        exactly, if they’re still in excel, the chances of their requirements being beyond a google search are pretty slim in my opinion.

  12. BradC

    Yeah, I’d definitely approach this via a question about what the job requires; because for some people “advanced Excel skills” means nice formatting and a couple of 3D pie charts and knowing how to use the “Sum” function; for other people it means something else entirely.

    1. Kiki

      Yes! Advanced Excel and even “proficient with Excel” are wildly variable based on the position and company.
      Asking is good for both parties: they can clarify what they mean by advanced and you can make sure they know what level you’re at right now. Asking also demonstrates engagement with the topic and a basic understanding of the program. Even if the company ideally wanted a level of Excel above what LW is currently at, if I were in their shoes I’d be encouraged that LW knows enough to know what they don’t know.

      1. Environmental Compliance

        “Even if the company ideally wanted a level of Excel above what LW is currently at, if I were in their shoes I’d be encouraged that LW knows enough to know what they don’t know.”

        +100! Often knowing what you don’t know, and knowing how to start figuring how to do that task, is more important than just off hand knowing how to do Task A.

    2. Amylou

      Yes! At a previous job, people definitely thought I had “advanced” excel skills cause I could sort data, use conditional formatting, remove duplicates (literally a button for that one…) write basic formulas and so on.

      I know that’s not very advanced stuff, but to coworkers I was an Excel whizzkid.

      So OP, please ask first, what they understand under ‘Advanced’…

  13. oneweeknotice

    Happened to me last year. I came across a role with a dream company that, against all odds, combined many of my professional skills with an industry I’m incredibly passionate about.

    The job description called for high-level HTML and CSS experience, which I simply didn’t have because every other adjacent role I’d worked in the past decade had had developers to handle all levels of coding.

    I applied anyway and was surprised when HR reached out to me within 90 minutes to schedule a phone screen. I was honest about it in every conversation I had, from the internal recruiter to the hiring manager and others, and said (honestly!) I was currently working to improve my skills in that area regardless of whether or not I was chosen for the role.

    Despite feeling like every conversation was going to be my last one, I was offered (and accepted) the role. Sure enough, I’ve had to use HTML and CSS now and then over the past seven months, but there’s never been an instance where I couldn’t figure a problem out with a quick Google search if need be. Honesty is a good policy, as long as the rest of the role isn’t also over your head!

    1. Bee

      I think, also, that kind of honesty can impress the interviewers – they know you’re unlikely to be the kind of person who pretends there’s no problem until it’s become a huge disaster.

    2. Kiwiii

      This just happened to me. The listing for my new job included “professional knowledge of or experience with HTML/CSS”. It made me so nervous that I almost didn’t apply.

      I went into that interview like, “well, I have edited Myspace and Tumblr themes before and I’ve taught myself a little CSS for fun in college but haven’t used it since, but I swear I catch on quickly.” and they were like “oh, yeah, that’ll be plenty. It’s really just reformatting things and we’re happy to teach you if you still come up a little short.” It’s so hard to tell if the things they list in a posting are Don’t Apply Without or more of a wishlist.

      1. Venus

        In my field it is common for there to be two lists in a job description: Essential and Desirable qualifications

        This really helps to make it clear. I’m surprised that others aren’t the same

  14. Corporate Slave

    This is the situation I got myself into. My advice: don’t discount the stress you’ll feel if you struggle trying to learn too much too fast with too much pressure. Find out more, and if it’s only some advanced Excel skills you need to google/learn, that might be doable. But you know yourself, so be kind to yourself, especially if you’re in a job you don’t have to leave.
    I started a job in May where I (and apparently my employer) figured my intermediate skills would enable me to pick up info quickly. However, I now find myself in a position of being expected to support my team (three of whom started after I did) in things like Git, a content management system I didn’t already know, advanced HTML/CSS/web design (my skills are circa 2009), proprietary company technology, etc., all on top of my regular workload. (And while I’m trying to sell my house and move across the country, but that’s another story…). Let’s just say I hurled because of stress for the first time in my life this morning. Oh, my hubris…

    1. Fortitude Jones

      That sounds awful – I’m sorry you’re going through that. Is there any way to ask your manager if they can shift some of your priorities to other people so you can do less of the stuff you don’t already know?

    2. A Person

      Was Git a surprise / not talked about during the interview? That sounds incredibly stressful, git is a rough world in and of itself even if you weren’t trying to do a million other things!

  15. KristinS

    The fact that this was specifically about Excel makes it all the more interesting to me. On the one hand, Excel can be an extremely difficult program to learn at a high-level, and I’ve seen a few new-hires (mostly in administrative assistant or paralegal roles) be fired pretty quickly because of their lack of proficiency in using the program.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen MANY job postings list “Microsoft Office” as one of the required skills for a position, and it often just seems to be a filler/fluff skill and lazy drafting by the person who created the posting.

    1. Elizabeth West

      I heard someone say once that they do put Office into job postings as a requirement because they ended up getting people who could barely use a computer. And they weren’t older people, either. You mostly see this in lower-level jobs, or ones posted through a staffing agency. I guess either it’s still a problem from time to time or it’s just in there out of habit.

      1. Kiwiii

        This is exactly why we do a “writing test” at the end of our coordinator interviews, just to make sure they’re comfortable enough with a computer to write a medium to well-organized email.

    2. Jules the 3rd

      I just had to spend time teaching a 40ish yo how to do adding / subtracting in excel. Former desktop publisher, quite smart, familiar with software and picked it up quickly, but really struggled to start. Too used to using calculators. After the first hour, we were zipping through drag-downs and conditional formatting, but that first hour was painful.

      If someone didn’t have a personal trainer, I could see being overwhelmed by it.

      I am deeply glad that my kid’s school is starting with google docs / sheets in 3rd grade.

      1. Dan

        Hah. By the time your kid graduates high school, something else is almost guaranteed to be the latest and greatest.

        It’s really interesting watching the evolution of the role that technology plays in our lives in many ways. In this day and age, when one is constantly connected to the world, needing to memorize facts for a school test seems pointless. My background is in math, and calculators are *everywhere*. How important is it to teach computation and arithmetic beyond one to digit problems? E.g., what purpose is served by making you multiply 456 times 789 by hand?

    3. Kimmybear

      Agreed. I once had someone assigned to help me clean up data in Excel for a database import and he sorted the columns individually rather than all at once (despite the error message telling him this was a bad idea). This was only one example of his skills that lead to his short tenure.

  16. Another worker bee

    An alternate explanation to Allison’s “many employers suck at interviewing” is that the team themselves, who have more say in things like take homes and phone/in person interview questions are actually decent at interviewing, and that HR is terrible at writing job postings. This is coming from a tech field so YMMV but I’ve been headhunted and offered jobs on the spot where I met maybe 30% of the criteria in a job posting. It’s a wish list, especially in this market. When I interview on my team I test them on the stuff that I absolutely need them to know coming in. If they know the rest, cool, but if not, they can pick it up.

  17. CommanderBanana

    Also, ‘high level of skill in X’ can vary a lot from company to company – Company A may mean “you know how to do basic stuff in X and will Google what you don’t know” and Company B may mean ‘you can do ALL THE THINGS in X on day 1.”

    It’s worth asking, for sure! But don’t assume that what you think of as ‘high level of skill’ is what the company is thinking of, especially since a lot of job listings will put things like ‘high level of skill in Microsoft Office’ when what they really mean is that you know how to use a computer and aren’t going to need coaching through stuff like using Outlook.

    I get asked by coworkers how to do basic stuff like insert tables so you can sort in Excel or how to do a line break in Excel because they don’t know how and also don’t have the wherewithal to Google “how to do X in Y” before asking someone else or being arsed to learn.

  18. Zach

    I’ve had at least two jobs where I had extremely bare-bones experience with some high-level requirements on job descriptions and I did totally fine with them after I was hired. It seems like it was a combination of me being able to learn along the way and that the people who create the job descriptions *way* overestimate what the required level of skill is for some of those requirements.

    For example: My current job required Adobe Illustrator experience. I have yet to encounter anything much more than “just type this text into this Illustrator file and save it as a PDF.” The handful of tasks that have been slightly more complicated that that were easy to handle with a quick Google, as you mentioned.

    During the interview process, when they asked if I had worked with Illustrator before I just said “yes,” which wasn’t a lie, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was experienced with it as opposed to just having poked around in it a few times.

    1. Fortitude Jones

      I had the same thing come up with InDesign at my last job. I hadn’t used InDesign in 15 years, so the functionality is very different from what I remember it being. When they asked about my comfort level with it during my interview, I told them that – my skills are outdated, but I could poke around in it and relearn it if it’s a large part of my job.

      Turns out I really only needed to know how to link images and change text fields in templates that were already created. I had one larger project where I had to add pages and design from scratch, but once I was able to grasp the basics, I got it done and it turned out okay.

  19. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

    I agree with the above writers that Excel is a bit different from many other skills because people have extremely different definitions for advanced or basic. Still I think it’s important to understand that sometimes you really are in a situation where at the interview you think you don’t have all the skills for the job and you even point it out, but you still get an offer. As OP is currently employed, it’s very important to understand the risks in that situation because they actually have something to lose, unlike an unemployed job seeker.

    My personal experience with this isn’t about anything comparable to Excel skills, it’s the fact that in my university degree, my major is somewhat unusual. People outside the field don’t usually know what it means or confuse it with other, somewhat similar sounding things. I applied to a job where the job description wasn’t very clear but sounded interesting, and was invited to interview. During the interview I found out that the job was actually even further away from my field than I had thought. I pointed out to the interviewer that while I’m able and willing to expand my knowledge and learn more, I don’t really know much about the topic and have studied something different. He seemed to think that my background was a good enough match and offered me the job. I accepted, but felt all the time very insecure about how it would work out. It didn’t, and I was fired three months later. Only at that stage I figured out that my interviewer had originally mistaken my degree for something other similar sounding and because of that thought that I had studied stuff I hadn’t.

    I didn’t lose much by accepting that job, because when I did I had a temp contract at another place that was ending soon, so I didn’t quit another job for that one. It’s possible to take a risk in that situation. Still if I could go back in time to that interview, I would express my insecurity more clearly and also describe better what I’ve actually studied, even risking that the interviewer would think that I think he’s stupid. Being fired is hard and if a little bit of extra clarity can help you avoid that, you should do it.

    1. Dan

      Being fired *is* hard. As far as firings go, you have an “easy” one to explain in future interviews. You can say there was a mismatch in expectations between what the role required and what you were able to provide. (You don’t have to point fingers and blame people, that explanation is good enough.) And then ask a few probing questions about the skills truly required for the job you’re interviewing for. And presto… however much of the skill mismatch is your fault, you’ve just resolved by taking a more proactive look.

      That said… I work in a niche industry where it is near impossible to acquire technical staff with the domain knowledge required to do the job. So we MUST train. Some people never do pick it up. As far as we’re concerned, we’re sorry it didn’t work out, and that’s just life.

  20. drpuma

    I have been in your shoes. Not with Excel, with a skillset that is central to entire departments and industries. It was listed as one or two lines in the job description. Nowhere on my resume. Boss-to-be didn’t ask me about it in my interview. Neither did her boss, nor her boss’s boss, nor her boss’s boss’s boss. I got the job, and it turned out that Skillset was central to my responsibilities. My predecessor had a background in that industry and left my role because he hadn’t been able to move into Skillset Department internally. There were many reasons that job wasn’t for me, but my monthly struggles with Skillset – and my boss’s inability to teach it to me – certainly didn’t help. I really needed a job at that time, but I sure wish I had known a tactful way to ask whether Skillset was *really* necessary.

    1. Environmental Compliance

      To be fair, if it is a central skill to the role, you’d think it’d be more clearly delineated in the job posting and brought up significantly in an interview. I can’t imagine interviewing someone for a Senior Sunflower Growing position and not asking about their gardening experience and looking for gardening-type roles on their resume.

  21. tamarack and fireweed

    I like Alison’s advice, as usual, but I think there’s another layer to it. IMHO it’s a good idea to have an (initial) idea of the size of the gap between what you think your current skill set is and what you think the company expects.

    For example, if you know how to use formulas in Excel and are quite adept at finding what you need through internet searches, then learning how to do conditional formatting and pivot tables is a matter of a few hours of training, a video or two, and maybe a cheat sheet. No serious company that wants you for what you can bring to their ogranization is going to blink twice about investing this amount of training in you. On the other hand, where I am a lot more hesitant is whole skill areas – project management vs. program management vs. product management or the various declinations of infosec, for example. These are much more likely to come up in an interview, compared to your exact skill at conditional formatting of Excel sheets, but they’re also more likely to hold you up and prevent you from performing well on your job if there’s a mismatch between employer expectations post-interview and your actual experience level.

    In any event, Alison’s scripts are great. They need to be used with confidence, not defensively or apologetically. I imagine a tone of “I have no doubt I can do this interesting job and want to make sure we agree on my ramp-up path, in the event I am hired”.

  22. That Girl From Quinn's House

    Even if you make it clear to someone what your skills are, and are not, they might still hire you and then get annoyed that they didn’t listen.

    I had that happen, I had an American Llama Safety Institute certification. It was on my resume. I mentioned it several times in the interview. They asked if I had Llama Safety Association of America certification. I carefully pointed out that ALSI and LSAA are two different organizations, and that I would need to either teach ALSI courses, or take a class to become an LSAA instructor. I clarified, again, that they were two separate organizations and certifications. They said fine.

    Every day for the next three weeks, “So you’re an LSAA instructor, can you do this class for us? Why didn’t you tell us you were ALSI? Aren’t they the same thing? Why did we hire you if you can’t teach LSAA?”

    *bangs head into wall*

    1. Fortitude Jones

      Oh man, that’s a nightmare. Yes, occasionally, you’ll run into people who don’t really listen during interviews because they want to hire someone right now(!) and don’t think through the consequences.

      I would be beyond stressed out in this position.

  23. Brett

    The phrase “high level Excel” is such a particularly odd one, because one of the hallmarks of having high level Excel expertise is that you have moved on to not using Excel to solve high level problems.
    Or as I would think of it,
    “Do you have high level expertise in Excel?”
    ‘Yes, I know both python and R.’

    1. AvonLady Barksdale

      And yet, I would never assume that proficiency in Excel means someone has learned Python or R. If someone asked me if I had high level expertise in Excel, I’d figure they were asking about Excel.

      1. JSPA

        I think the point is that, when you’re trying to use Excel for stats (which I’ve done) you’d be much better off doing the same thing, more gracefully, simply, powerfully–and with a prettier end product–in Python or R.

        It’s like using a butter knife as a screwdriver, or a screwdriver as a pry-bar, or a pry-bar for the handle of a car jack–it’ll work, usually (until it doesn’t) but the downside of using the wrong tool for the job increases as the job becomes more demanding.

        So they ARE asking for Excel, but that may not be what they should be asking. And if you bring R to the table, you can certainly point out its utility and applicability.

        1. Brett

          Yes, JSPA has it right.
          Python, R, and other languages gracefully replace the skills that you are often trying to use when you try do “high level Excel”. Which means that a position that requires high level Excel may really be trying to tackle a problem in the wrong way. (Or, what I might more suspect, is that they are trying to avoid paying for a more mature data skill set.)

          1. Dan

            I wonder how explicit your last statement is in people’s minds. Because it’s true. I do data intensive work, and AFAIK, we don’t advertise for Excel skills. And people with the skills we need require six figure salaries.

            You advertise for “advanced” Excel skills for a data analytics job and I self select out because I’m just going to get frustrated working with the wrong tools for the job.

            If one *does* have strong Excel skills but is frustrated with one’s pay, one can introduce the things you’ve mentioned (they’re free, management can’t complain), develop those skills on the job, and parlay that into a bigger salary somewhere else.

          2. TechWorker

            I did a stats based internship where I tried to load a large dataset into excel on the first day and excel simply fell over as it exceeded the max number of rows. I learnt R pretty quickly after that – but there’s various commenters here describing using excel for large amounts of data. Is there some excel trick I’m missing or just differing definitions of large..?

            1. Dan

              If you can use Excel to analyze your data, you don’t have enough data.

              Different definitions of large. Excel will choke if you actually try to do a lot of math on a million rows of data.

        2. Cedrus Libani

          I’m a no-Excel snob too – Excel is good for hand-inspection of data, but once it gets fancier than AVERAGE(A:A), it’s not the best tool for the job.

          That said, it has one nearly unbeatable feature…your great-grandboss already has it on her computer, and knows how to use it, at least to the point of being able to open your report and poke at the results. So people use it. Sometimes they use it for everything. I’ve seen companies that run basically their entire data infrastructure with a bunch of cobbled together Excel macros. (And if I saw that as an interviewee, there would be a series of me-shaped holes in the wall as I made my exit. However, somebody’s got to maintain that mess, and they had better know Excel very well.)

          1. Dan

            I actually had a “skills” test for an analytic position that required doing stuff in Excel. Except that part of the test was un-munging a bunch of string values using Excel string functions (which I never use). I couldn’t get past that part of the test because when I have data that messy, I use free software tools to clean it up and format it the way I want. Much faster that way.

            I took the test, looked at the interviewers and told them what a waste it was. This was for an analytic role where logical reasoning skills and a whole bunch of other stuff are kind of central to the job. Yet the test was set up such that if you weren’t comfortable with Excel string functions, then you couldn’t actually do the parts of the test where said logical reasoning skills could be demonstrated.

            When I griped about the test, they said, “Oh we know the test has problems.” Well then WTF are you still giving it out for?

          2. alayne

            Well you can do your work doing whatever you want (Python, R) and then here’s the part I find truly beautiful . . . output it as a csv. That your grandboss can easily open in a csv, and not be any the wiser what you did or did not use to produce it.

    2. Dan

      Yes. I do a lot of big data/data-intensive work, and my Excel skills *suck*. Because for that kind of data, I don’t use Excel.

      I was going to be more charitable and write something like “if you have to brag about your Excel skills, you’re using the wrong tool.”

      1. Environmental Compliance

        When I taught frosh chem at a college just a handful of years ago, during the first week I’d ask them to raise their hands if they thought they were proficient at Excel. Nearly every one of them would raise their hands. We’d then go through a simple graphing exercise (here’s the data for X and for Y, please create a table & a scatterplot, then get the equation).

        Out of the entire cohort of about 80 students, bright enough to get into a large competitive university, perhaps 60 would be able to get the data table set up and properly labeled. Of those, 20 would be able to make the scatterplot. About 10 would be able to get the equation up.

        And then I’d ask them to compute averages. Most would then pull out their calculators and do it there instead of in Excel.

    3. Green great dragon

      Ha! Depends what you want it for though. It’s a nice little scenario modelling tool.

    4. Student

      Yes, that’s true to some extent. But I have used R, SAS, Stata, SQL and Excel in the past month, largely depending on what tool was closest to hand. Honestly, if it’s a little dataset and I just want the tables already, Excel is my tool of choice. For jobs that don’t have big data and don’t get fancy with statistics, Excel is probably great.

  24. Anonymeece

    I would ask some examples of what they consider to be “high level Excel”. Honestly, I would think conditional formatting and pivot tables would land in the “intermediate” category, so it’s a bit subjective.

    You may find that what you can do is exactly the level they’re looking for.

    From there you can say, “I’m comforting doing X and Y from what you’re mentioning. I haven’t done Z, but I do feel comfortable learning new things and am confident I could learn it” (if you are). If it is too high a level of Excel than you feel comfortable with, then you can just be honest.

  25. Coffee Owlccountant

    LW, I don’t know that I would be too overly worried about The Excel Question here. I don’t think it would hurt you if you brought it up and got more information as Alison suggested and you’re likely to get a better idea of where the job fits in your comfort level. I would think about your experience and expertise with the other skills or tools that you will need in the job. If Excel is your only stretch area, you’ll almost certainly be fine. If Excel is a stretch area for you AND there are some other parts of the job that you’re not where the job needs you to be, that is when you would struggle, in my opinion.

    As other members of the commentariat have noted, a “high level” in Excel will mean something different to everyone you ask. For my boss, a “high level” with Excel is fluency with vlookups, sumif functions, and pivot charts; for me, a “high level” with Excel is VBA, power pivots, power BI, and anything else intended to turn a spreadsheet application into a database application. What you are using it for also makes a big difference – is the “high level” because you have big data sets that you’re extracting analysis from, or is the “high level” because you’re creating and formatting dashboard reports for publication to senior management or external clients? Or both? Or something else entirely? These are all very different skillsets within Excel and you could be great at one thing and not something else.

    As an aside, a recommendation – if you’re looking to advance your Excel skills and have a little bit of time to throw at the problem, I can’t recommend the Coursera Excel Skills for Business track from Macquarie U highly enough as a beginner-to-intermediate place to start. If you’re willing to pay for it, you can get the certification to attach to your LinkedIn profile, but even just auditing and watching the videos is helpful.

  26. CR

    Yes. Counting yourself out right away because you’re “immediate” is a really poor job of selling yourself.

  27. MrsMurphy

    I really like Alison‘s advice here and agree that asking for clarification is the best thing to do. It can also come across positive: When I interviewed for my current job I wasn‘t too passionate about whether or not it would work out so I wasn‘t that nervous during the interview. I had experience in a similar role, but the posting pretty much asked for skill A (which I‘m awesome at, if I do say so myself) and equally important skill B, which I had limited experience with.
    I asked about it in the interview. I think I said something to the effect of: „How important would skill B be in my daily tasks and to what extent? Because if you expect someone who‘s great at it this won‘t be a job for me. I‘ll do skill A backwards and forwards but I will require a lot of training in B.“
    I expected them to thank me for the interview and never call again. Instead I was offered the job within hours. Turns out my direct colleague is brilliant in skill B but lacks skill A, so that was perfect. AND I later found out that I really impressed the interviewer by being honest and confident in my skill set. Never thought I‘d land a job by pointing out what I‘m bad at, but it makes sense in hindsight.

  28. The Man, Becky Lynch

    I used to get spooked about Excel requirements, then I found out how many places grossly overestimate their use of the program in the first place. I’ve had people want “advanced” Excel skills in their job ads and then turned out that it’s just that they have a couple spreadsheets they keep updated. My brain kind of did a record screech, thinking originally they wanted me to be able to do magic tricks with it but no, they just wanted frigging data entry and basic spreadsheet creation to breakout expenses or costing.

    I agree that the best way to approach it is to ask them what they do with the program and how it’s used on a daily basis. Frequently, it’s not what you’re fearing it is. I wouldn’t downplay or really speak to my skill set, I would just approach it as “You mention this in the job description and I want to know more about what you will expect!”

    I see it with programs all the time, not just Excel. Ask me about how many people I deal with that swear they are experts at Quickbooks and can’t even do the basics and freak out when a different year/edition is put in front of them *sobs uncontrollably*. Excel though, that’s even more fickle because it’s used for so much, so you really can’t always figure out where you sit on anyone’s sliding scale!

  29. sigh

    Excel is insanely subjective! Where I am now started with a job posting asking for an intermediate user. I’ve passed past classes that were termed “advanced,” but no where near the complications listed above in another users post. I applied and gave the line about googling what I don’t know program wise. My entry “test” was basic beginner excel. Translating their instructions was more complicated.
    Then I started the job, and my job is decoding intricately linked massive workbooks full of financial data and trying to reconcile against University records, then predicting the long term outcomes. These spreadsheets are crazy detailed and overwhelming in scope. No use googling the data.

  30. goducks

    In my experience, the more excel you know, the lower you’ll rate your skills. Or, the less excel you know, the higher you’ll rate your skills. I can’t count the number of times I’ve hired for clerical positions where I’ve inquired on excel skills to discover that they rank themselves strong (further pressing leads to learning that they can’t even write basic functions, but they can input data in pre-defined formats) or so/so (discover that means that they don’t often write macros, and that they can’t script VBA.
    I long ago learned to ask applicants to quantify their proficiency with concrete skill descriptions.

  31. Buttons

    I ask a few questions that help me determine if my skill level is where they are expecting it to be;
    “what will be the first priority for the person in this role?” If they say “we need you to create new pivot tables in Excel for such and such reports, and it will need be done in the first 60 days”, and you can’t do that yet, then you may not be the right fit.
    The next thing I ask “What do you think is the biggest challenge the person will face?” This will tell me what they think is not only the hardest part of the job but one of the most important aspects.
    And one of my other determining questions is “what skill/ability will fill a gap and complement the existing team?” This tells me what skill/ability/knowledge they are lacking and are looking to bridge. If I can’t do that, or not an “expert” at that, then I have to think long and hard about if I am the right person for them.
    I want to stretch, but I don’t want to be so far from my abilities that I can’t meet their needs in the first 90 days.

  32. AAM's approach worked for me many times

    I can attest to the power of saying, ‘But if you’re looking for someone who can do X right off the bat, that’s likely not me.”

    I said that in all my recent interviews. For a product manager role, when asked if I had experience with product pricing, in my last job search in data analytics when asked how good I was with SQL…

    Guess what? Every time that happened, I got the offer! I think the interviewers liked the fact that I was upfront about my weaknesses, and could tell I’m a fast learner from other things discussed during the interview. Next time I’m interviewing, I’ll be hoping there is a question I can answer that way, because the reaction from the interviewer is always very positive, as if they were thinking “oh, this person is confident in her skills and doesn’t need to hide the truth — that’s the kind of employee I’d like to hire” ;-).

  33. Anon for this one

    This became such a touchy subject that for many years we always asked candidates to name their favorite excel function. As strange as it sounds – it is was the gold we going for! We got honest information about their skill level, and could assess how that fit with us. If you feel handy with programs, and able to pick things up quickly, then go for it!

  34. FD

    I wonder if it would be helpful for the LW to ask, “In my experience, employers can want a range of skills when they ask for someone who’s good with Excel. Would you be able to give me a few examples of what people in this role use it for?”

    That gives you a better sense of the skills they actually need.

  35. LGC

    Also: specific to your question, LW, I feel like “high level” of Excel knowledge can encompass anything from pivot tables to VBA and everything in between, and was probably written by an HR person who gets baffled by more than one spreadsheet in a workbook. (Excel has LEVELS, man.)

    Without knowing what the position involves…it’s actually hard to provide specific advice. So that’s where I’d start – would the job involve pulling directly from databases? What about organizing and visualizing data for presentation? Are they big data sets or small ones? You probably won’t know all of this but it should give you an idea of where to start.

  36. Interview

    I am not a good interviewer at all but at the same time I would not necessarily blame the interviewer for not specifically asking whether the applicant possesses every single skill on the job posting. That would seem like an odd interview to me- basically going through a list. If the only thing of concern is excel I would not bring it up because you can learn excel and they did not test for it. Also agree with the comment that men likely would not admit lack of knowledge in this scenario.

  37. CountryLass

    My husband was interviewing for a promotion with some other internal candidates (all asked the same questions, answers scored and highest score gets it. This is standard for the type of industry he is in.) and he felt he was doing really well, until they asked a question he didn’t understand. He thought about it, then had to apologise and ask them to explain the question as he didn’t quite understand what they were asking.

    He came out KICKING himself and convinced he had blown it. I pointed out that they might have taken his willingness to admit he did not know something and ask for further clarification was a GOOD thing. I would have! As it turns out, the other 4 candidates didn’t understand it either (the interviewer told my husband afterwards that they will re-phrase that if they use it again) but as they just took a stab at it, guess who got the job? That’s right, my husband! As he showed that he was comfortable asking for help to make sure a job got done properly!

  38. J

    OP here – thanks all for the comments everyone. I will update if I end up getting an offer!

  39. Peaches

    I know I’m late to the party, but it’s also possible your interviewer’s definition of “high level” Excel skills might be different than yours.

    I say this from experience. Last year, our company hired a new manager who wanted me to work on an Excel-related project. Before handing off the project, he asked me “how good are you at Excel on a 1-5 scale? 5 being ‘I’m a programmer'”. Before he had added the bit about 5 being a programmer, I was going to give myself a 4/5. Since I’m nowhere near a programmer, I said “maybe a 3?”

    From that point on, my boss would constantly offer Excel tips/tricks to be that were VERY basic Excel functions such as:
    “If you highlight that column, you can add a filter to it and sort it how you want”
    “If you drag down that formula, it will autopopulate the cells below it with the same formula”

    and, my personal favorite:
    “If you press CTRL + C, you can copy that cell, and if you press CTRL + V you can paste it somewhere else” (something I’ve literally used every day, several times a day for many years.)

    I eventually told him that while I appreciated the tips, I was much more familiar with Excel than I had maybe let on initially.

    Not saying that is the case with your interviewer, but I would just clarify specifically what kind of Excel work would be expected in the position. Good luck!

  40. Robin J

    I’d put money on “high level Excel” meaning knowing how to add up a column of numbers.

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