Tips from a 15-year-old Excel spreadsheet champion

A young prodigy offers advice on how to sharpen your Excel skills.

Does taking your Excel skills from basic formulas and PivotTables to expert status have to be an arduous process? Does Excel proficiency require a lifetime of practice, or are there shortcuts to mastering the program?

Maybe Kevin Dimaculangan, a 15-year-old sophomore at Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Florida, could serve as a role model for how financial professionals can teach themselves to become experts in Excel.

Dimaculangan was crowned World Excel Champion after winning first place in Excel at the annual Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship, held from 29 July to 1 August in Orlando, Florida. The event, hosted by Certiport, a provider of performance-based IT certification exams, attracted more than 760,000 entrants from 116 countries.

To qualify for the competition, which is open to students between the ages of 13 and 22, participants took a qualifying Microsoft Office Specialist certification exam to demonstrate their mastery of Microsoft Office products. Regional competitions were then held worldwide followed by the final round of competition in Orlando attended by 152 student finalists, including Dimaculangan.

In the concluding round, competitors participated in unique project-based tests to demonstrate their ability to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations for information presented in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

“When I took the Excel certification for the first time, I got a perfect 1,000 on it,” he said. “And when I took the Excel Expert Certification, which is supposed to be a lot harder, I got a perfect 1,000 on that. And I haven’t had that [happen] with any other certification.” Not only did he get a perfect score, he was also the first student to earn a Microsoft Excel Expert certification at his school.

So how did Dimaculangan become so good so quickly with Excel? He explained three things he thought made the difference for him, and what advice he would give to others who want to improve their Excel skills.

Get help

If you’re serious about taking your Excel game to the next level, Dimaculangan said enrolling in a course — even the Microsoft Office certification courses — is the way to go. With a vast array of formulas and functions, Excel can be daunting even for semi-experienced users.

“When you’re first looking at Excel, it can be intimidating,” he said. “Hundreds of functions that you don’t know how to use. The certification course was really, really helpful.”

In addition to the Microsoft Office certification courses, different continuing professional education providers feature an Excel training course geared specifically for public and private accountants.

Another option is to hire a coach or teacher to complement a self-study course. If you get stuck or have a question, you have outside help you can turn to.

“Ask questions,” Dimaculangan said. “It’s a pretty challenging certification, and you’ll probably need the help.”

Get immediate feedback

To take yourself to an expert Excel level, according to Dimaculangan, not only should you enrol in a course, but you should also make sure to get immediate feedback when undertaking it. Dimaculangan relied on real-time grading throughout his training for the certification exam.

“The first few times I would take a practice test,” he said, “practice mode would provide hints and immediate feedback. I would then take the test again without the hints and feedback. Once you get an 85 or higher on three of these practice tests, you can go to the testing centre and take the certification.”

The advantage of receiving real-time feedback is a higher level of understanding of what is being studied and ensuring you don’t reinforce incorrect ideas or bad habits. And according to a 2011 study about language learning published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, individuals who receive immediate feedback show a greater increase in performance and understanding compared to individuals who don’t receive feedback until the following day.

Practise, practise, practise

Dimaculangan’s third tip for learning Excel is something that accountants are very familiar with — practising the same tasks over and over again. “Keep working on practice tests,” he said.

One way for finance professionals to practise their Excel skills is to take a spreadsheet created by a co-worker and re-engineer it. To see formulas used in your Excel spreadsheet, press F2 while the active cell is highlighted. The formula contained in that cell will be displayed in the formula bar, and all other cells associated with the formula will be outlined.

Another suggestion for practice is working through a video or workbook. Ask a continuing professional education provider in your industry about courses it offers in Excel. Many have videos and/or workbooks to work through to learn and practise various Excel topics.

Wes Kimple, CPA, is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at