What I would ask if you claimed you knew Excel

Fridays have become gyaan sessions about employment, internships and jobs, and I suppose that’s a fine thing to keep going. Here are posts on the past two Fridays: On Interning, and “Cracking” Interviews.

Today is about what I would ask you if I was the interviewer, and I see on your CV that you claim to be proficient in MS-Excel. This post will hopefully help you figure out if you know Excel well enough – and by your responses, it’ll help me understand if I’m asking good questions!

Here are ten questions I would have asked about MS-Excel in an interview. I’ve tried to arrange them in increasing order of difficulty, so the first is the easiest one

  1. Is it possible to work with text data in Excel? Can you give me an example?
  2. What exactly is conditional formatting? Can you tell me about a time you used it in MS-Excel?
  3. How would you password protect a file in Excel?
  4. When are you better off using data filters instead of pivot tables? Whatever your answer, what is your reasoning?
  5. I’m not a fan of pie charts. Do you agree with my opinion, or not? Why?
  6. Give me your best guess about a keyboard shortcut in Excel that I’ll not be aware of.
  7. Index and Match, or Vlookup – which is better, and why?
  8. How would you go about creating dynamic charts in Excel? Or sentences that update automatically when new data is fed in to the sheet?
  9. What is your favorite Excel add-in? Why?
  10. Walk me through the coolest project you’ve ever done in Excel. (This last one if I’m convinced that you are a proper, legit Excel ninja)

How did you do? How did I do? What are questions that I should have asked but didn’t?

“Cracking” Interviews

I had written about maximizing soul the other day, and acing interviews is one of the best ways to think about minimizing time, effort and cost, rather than maximizing soul.

Because, in my opinion, cracking an interview is the same thing as saying that my work isn’t good enough to get me through the door. So what can I say, do or project in the interview that can tip me over.

The simplest way to crack an interview is to be good enough to be recruited.1


But, all that being said, and most probably ignored, here are some points to think about when you want to “crack” an interview.2

  1. As a fresher, it is perfectly fine to not have any prior work experience. Don’t sweat it if you have no work-ex to show on your CV. At you age, and your level of experience, that is a feature, not a bug.
  2. Given your lack of experience, and presumably prior work-ex, the interviewer is likely to focus on your CV. This is the streetlight effect: what is most easily searchable will be searched. Whatever is on your CV – the only piece of paper that the interviewer has to go on – is what they’ll focus on the most.
  3. That’s why all the agonizing over the CV – it becomes your calling card during the interview.
  4. Keep your CV as brief as possible, preferably less than a page. I still keep my CV to below a page.
  5. The economics-y way of thinking about this is very similar to how a presenter uses a PPT. The PPT should be a complement, not a substitute. Since you’re the one giving the interview, and not your CV, your CV should be nothing more than a bridge for the interviewer to reach you. It should be short on detail, but as long as possible on sparking curiosity.
  6. If your CV is able to spark said curiosity, it is up to you to turn that spark into a raging fire. To me, personally, your ability to speak English isn’t a deciding factor3. Your ability to communicate, to get your point across – in any mutually understandable language – that is very much a deciding factor.
  7. For example, if the interviewer says “Tell me more about this project/internship/whatever” – that’s a spark.
  8. Do not rush into a description of the project.
  9. Tell the interviewer about skills that you used to do the project well. Make sure these skills are relevant to the job that you are interviewing for. (Example: “I used my knowledge of VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
  10. Or tell the interviewer about skills that you acquired while doing this project. The second sentence in point 9 above applies here as well. (Example: “I learn how to use VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
  11. Or tell the interviewer about skills that you become aware you were lacking in while doing this project. Again, the second sentence applies. But also, in this particular case, you should also be able to tell the interviewer stuff that you have done to begin acquiring these skills. (Example: “I learnt that I had to know VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel inside out in order to do xyz. I have learnt how to do this by doing abc”)
  12. Now, all that being said, you should precede pts. 9, 10 and 11 by explaining in no more than three sentences the following:
    1. What was the point of the project? (That is, was the idea behind the project to increase revenues for the firm, decrease costs for the firm, or increase speed to market for the firm?)
    2. What was your specific role in the project? (That is, where did you fit in the big picture? This shows an awareness of both your own specific role, as well as the ability to understand how the whole project comes together, and why.)
    3. Quantify the success of the project. (Overall, we were able to increase x metric by y% over z years.)
    4. There is no way in hell you are going to be able to do this without writing it down. Please, spend the time and write down, in your own words, your answers to each of the three points above. Writing it down makes it clearer in your head. Trust me on this one.
  13. If you’ve done pt. 12 well, followed by pts. 9, 10, and 11, congratulations. You’ve turned that spark of curiosity into a raging fire. You’ve done this by demonstrating:
    1. A passion to learn stuff relevant to the task at hand
    2. An ability to think clearly and cogently about the work that you do
    3. A clear awareness of where you need to improve, and what you’re doing about it.
    4. The ability to communicate your work and its relevance clearly4
  14. Do this well enough, and you should be able to “crack” the interview.

  1. “What if there are many people who are good enough?” is the response I usually get when I say something like this. Contradictory, no? If there are many people who are good enough, then you aren’t good enough to be better than them. Work on that first![]
  2. This blog post is written assuming a fresher is sitting for an interview. Some points don’t change no matter what type of an interviewee you are, some do.[]
  3. Language should never be a barrier![]
  4. Again, the point is to not be Shakespeare, the master of the English language. The point is to be a very, very good communicator. Short, sharp sentences, and clarity of thinking – that’s what matters.[]