Excel Learning Tips for Actuaries

FeliciaIf I were to write a list under the heading “Things I Wish I Mastered in School,” Excel would be surprisingly close to the top.

Most of us are familiar with at least one or more Microsoft Office products. We probably consider ourselves Word experts after writing tons of essays and reports in school, and Power Point experts after preparing lots of presentations. Microsoft Excel, on the other hand, may not be one that you found useful while at school, but in the workplace, it is invaluable. It is a tool every actuary should know. One could argue that knowing Excel is almost as important as passing an exam.

When I changed my major from computer science to actuarial science, I faced a steep learning curve in using Excel. My first internship was at an insurance company, and my first project was to create an Excel-based calculator. I had said at my interview that I had some Excel skills. I was in panic mode when I realized there was much more to learn than I originally thought.

I will not declare myself an Excel guru, but I can give you some strategies that worked for me. Here are some useful tips that might help should you find yourselves on a similar career path.

Tip #1 – Study Excel now. Not next year, not next month, now. It’s never too late to learn. One way to fast-track your learning is to ask a friend (or two) who works with Excel. (Personally, I am indebted to Ria and Kayleigh.) Bouncing questions off your Excel-savvy friends might ease the process of learning and help jumpstart your knowledge of Excel. Ask them about some of the more commonly used functions and shortcuts, and dig in! Practice. Practice. Practice. Doing this habitually will pay great dividends in the end, just like studying for actuarial exams.

Tip #2 – Use Excel in your daily life. If you like to record your daily expenses, then stop using the pen (or abacus) and switch to an Excel-based budget. Practice simple Excel functions (e.g., sum, average, max and min) to play with your numbers, and format your monthly reports however you want.

Tip #3 –Take on a challenge. There’s no doubt you will come across questions that you have never seen before at work. Don’t throw in the towel right away. Attempt it before you say you can’t do it. Having confidence in your ability to learn and solve challenging problems is essential for personal growth. Expect to get frustrated. Keep “FAIL” (First Attempt In Learning) in mind. But use those events as learning resources to develop your tools for success.  Goal setting will help ease the tension in this process.

Tip #4 – Ask Google before you ask others. Google is everyone’s best friend. You can ask it questions whenever and on whatever. There’s nothing wrong with asking people questions, but often you would need to ask the right questions. And you’d be surprised how often the answer is already available online.

Tip #5 – Take notes. To this day, I still get excited to discover amazing functions or formulas written by others. I save them for future use. Writing things down also helps to memorize them or understand them better.

If I knew then what I know now about how important Excel is in the workplace, I would have studied and used it a lot sooner. But I appreciate the challenge and opportunity of working in an insurance company. I learned how to use what I learned from school, and I developed a new and important skillset on the job. So can you.