Step 1: Placing the VLOOKUP formula
Start by selecting the cells where you want the result of your calculation (the VLOOKUP function) to go.
We’re going to be looking for something, so include a spare cell to use for “searching”.
In this case 4 cells in total.
Two for the name and two for the salary.
- Select cells E2:F3. Go to the “Font” group of the “Home” tab on the ribbon and click the little arrow next to the “Borders” button.
- Right-click and select “Format Cells”. Then go to the “Border” tab.
- Select a thick border from the “Style” options and click on the “Outline” preset. Then click the horizontal line in the mid of the example.
- Now select a thinner border style and click the vertical line in the mid of the example.
- Type in “Name” in cell E2 and “Salary” in E3 and make the text bold.
Now we have a pretty little area to fill in what we’re looking for (cell F2) and our formula with VLOOKUP below (cell F3).
That was pretty simple, right?
Move on to step 2…
Step 2: What are you looking for?
Now it’s time to get into the syntax of VLOOKUP.
Here’s what “syntax” means in the case of an Excel function:
“Syntax is a combination of the things you need to put into a function to make it work.”
A VLOOKUP function needs these 4 inputs to work:
- Lookup_value = What you are looking for
- Table_array = Where you are looking
- Col_index_num = What we want to know
- [range_lookup] = Whether we want to be precise or approximate in our search
All these inputs to the VLOOKUP formula must be separated with a comma.
When you write a formula, you’ll see all of these phrases inside a tooltip box below the cell you’re typing in.
Every time you put a comma, the tooltip box tells you how far you are in the formula, by bolding the current part of the syntax.
Here’s how to make sense of VLOOKUP’s syntax!
Imagine the VLOOKUP function doing the same as you when you want to look something up.
Say we have a book with people’s names, addresses, phone numbers, and salaries.
- You’re looking for Nate Harris’ salary.
- You acknowledge that you’re looking for the name ‘Nate Harris’ in the book. This is your identifier. The piece of information you’re searching for with your eyes. In Excel terms, this is your lookup value.
- You browse through the pages and find Nate Harris.
- You place the tip of your finger right below his name and move your hand to the right past information like his address, phone number, and other boring stuff. And there you have it! His salary! 3 inches to the right of his name. Then you write it down or do whatever you want to do with it.
That’s exactly how a VLOOKUP function works!
So our lookup value is typed into cell F2 and then used in our function.
I guess you’re getting the point by now? So let’s start building the formula!
Type this into Excel in cell F3 (also shown in the screenshot right below):
What comes next is the name of the employee we want to find more information about.
As a lookup value, you can either type in the name (“Nate Harris”) or put in a reference to the cell where you’ll type in the name.
The last option is usually the best and our sheet is set up to have the name entered in cell F2.
So we’re going to select cell F2 (or type F2 in the formula bar) and type a comma to move on in the formula.
In this case, the VLOOKUP formula will not be copied, but the sheet structure might be changed at some point.
To prevent the formula from being messed up, we lock the reference to cell F2.
Do this by putting the marker inside (or around) the F2 and pres the shortcut F4 (on MAC: Command + T).
Like done below:
Your formula now looks like this:
Step 3: Where are you looking?
This step is where we are looking for “Nate”.
When you are looking for Nate Harris manually, where do you look?
Well, Excel “looks” almost the same place!
So we’re looking in column A of the data – the one called ‘Full Name’ – Excel is also looking in column A.
However, the VLOOKUP function needs to know the entire dataset in order to return the information you want later on in step 4.
So select (or type) range A2 through C55 and press F4 (MAC: Cmd + T).
Now the reference to the range is locked and you can move on to the next step by typing a comma.
Your formula should look like this:
Step 4: What do you want to return?
When you use a VLOOKUP you want an answer to something.
What you want to return is what Excel calls the col_index_num (Column Index Number).
In short: Which column in the data you want to return data from.
When you’re looking for Nate Harris and find him in row 17 of the sample data, the column index number determines which column in the data the result will come from.
It’s as simple as this.
Column A has Column Index Number 1, column B has 2 and column C has 3.
That seems pretty straightforward, but you need to be aware of the following:
Got it? Great!
Going back to our original data in the sample file, you want to return the salary which is located in column index number 3.
Simply type 3 in your formula and move on to the next step by typing a comma.
Your formula should now look like this.
Let’s move on to the next step.
Step 5: Do you want to be precise or approximate?
When we look for something like a name (Nate Harris) and want to see his salary we don’t want to find a Nathan Jones or a Nate Miller instead just because their names are close to each other’s.
Excel deals with these 2 terms:
|“Approximate match”||“Exact match”|
|Used if you’re looking for a value that is closest to your lookup value.||Used if you’re looking for a value that is equal to your lookup value.|
It’s very easy to choose whether to use EXACT or APPROXIMATE match.
Just pick “FALSE” from the helper menu that pops up when you’ve entered the comma from step 4 – alternatively, you can type ‘FALSE’ after the comma.
Your formula should look like this by now.
Rule of thumb: Always pick “exact match” when using VLOOKUP
But rules are made to be broken right?
The exception: When you’re looking for a value inside an interval you can use VLOOKUP with an approximate match.
This is better illustrated by using an example, so let’s imagine a dataset like this:
Great, so that is when you should use “approximate match” instead of “exact match”.
Now, let’s continue with the primary example of this article.
Let’s put a parenthesis and get on with our formula.
It should look like this:
It’s time to move on to the last step…
Step 6: Press ‘Enter’
What do we usually do when completing a formula?
We press enter.
And that’s exactly what you’re going to do now!
When you’ve pressed “Enter” we don’t know if the formula is working or not.
We have to enter something the formula can look for in the ‘lookup value cell’ (F2) to validate what we’ve done is correct (which is why you’re currently seeing a #N/A error).
At the #N/A error, click the small exclamation mark left to the cell and you can see that Excel calls this a ‘Value Not Available Error’.
When we haven’t entered anything as the lookup value, Excel is automatically looking for ‘nothing’ in the left column of the table array.
When it can’t find anything (there’re only cells that contain something in our table array), it simply returns an error that states that it can’t find what you’re looking for.
Let’s try and type Nate Harris into our ‘Name’ cell (F2) and see what happens…
You’ve now made a tool to search for a person’s salary in an employee table.
Try to enter other people’s names in the ‘lookup value’ cell (F2) and witness the power of your newly created tool.
So, that’s how you create a VLOOKUP from scratch!
Make sure to bookmark this tutorial and go through the 6 steps next time you create a VLOOKUP function.
So, now that you can do a VLOOKUP, check out…