Excel Pivot Tables 101: How to Boost Your Data Skills

Do you find it a challenge to organize data in Microsoft Excel? Do you feel overwhelmed with all the information and have no idea where to start? Pivot tables are an excellent way of organizing your data. They allow you to see the breakdown of any number of fields, which makes identifying patterns easier. This tutorial shows you how to create a pivot table in Excel. (Includes practice file.)

What’s an Excel Pivot Table?

You might think of a pivot table as a custom-created summary table of your spreadsheet. It’s a bit like Transpose in Excel, where you can switch your columns and rows. But it also has elements of Excel Tables. And like tables, you can use Excel Slicers to drill down into your data.

You create the pivot table by defining which fields to view and how the information should display. Then, based on your field selections, Excel organizes the data to see a different view of your data.

For example, I’ve uploaded a data file with information on 4000 fictitious voters that include the following data fields:

  • Voter ID
  • Party Affiliation
  • Precinct
  • Age group
  • When they last voted
  • Years they’ve been registered
  • Ballot status
Source file for pivot table.
Starting data with filters

Looking at the first 20 records, you can see the content is beyond boring. In this format, the critical question it answers is how many voters exist in all the precincts.

Using an Excel pivot table, you can organize and group the same data in ways that start to answer actionable questions like:

  • What is the party breakdown by precinct?
  • Which precincts have the most Democrats?
  • How many voter pamphlets do I need for Precinct 2416?
  • Did people between 18-21 years vote?

Excel pivot tables allow you to group the spreadsheet by any data field. For example, the picture below shows a voter count by political party by precinct.

Pivot table example.
Same file with PivotTable Field List

Using a pivot table, I can continue to refine the information by selecting more fields from the PivotTable Field List. For example, I can segment the same data by voter age group.

Pivot table sections with markers.
Breaking down precincts by Age Groups

Understanding Table Structure

In the screen snap above, I’ve labeled the main areas of the pivot table. Depending on your Excel version, the labels may differ for the lower quadrants. For example, some versions use “Rows” and “Columns,” whereas others use “Row Labels” and “Column Labels.”

  1. PivotTable Field List – this section in the top-right displays the fields in your spreadsheet. You may check a field or drag it to a quadrant in the lower part.
  2. The lower right quadrants – this area defines where and how the data shows on your pivot table. For example, you can show a field in a column or a row. You may also indicate if the information should be counted, summed, averaged, filtered, etc.
  3. The area to the left results from your selections from [1] and [2]. You’ll see that the only difference I made in the last pivot table was to drag the AGE GROUP field underneath the PRECINCT field in the Row Labels quadrant.

How to Create Excel Pivot Table

There are several ways to build a pivot table. If you check the box, Excel has logic that knows the field type and will try to place it in the correct row or column. For example, numeric data such as Precinct counts tend to appear to the right in columns. Textual data, such as Party, would appear in rows.

While you can check fields to display and let Excel build your pivot table, I prefer to use the “drag and drop” method. This is partly because I like to visualize my data in columns and rows. It may also be easier if you have fields that can appear to be number-like such as a precinct value.

Total Time: 10 minutes

  1. Open your original spreadsheet and remove any blank rows or columns.

    You may also use the Excel sample data at the bottom of this tutorial.

  2. Make sure each column has a meaningful label.

    The column labels will be carried over to the Field List.

  3. Verify your columns are properly formatted for their data type.

    Mixed data formats will pose a problem.

  4. Click any populated cell.

    This helps set the range.

  5. Highlight your data range.

    Tip: You can press Ctrl + A to select all.

  6. Click the Insert tab.

    Your toolbar groups will change.

  7. Select the PivotTable button from the Tables group.

    This should be the first group.
    Pivot table button on toolbar.

  8. The Create PivotTable dialog appears.

    Your highlighted range will be shown. Also, the PivotTable report will open in a new worksheet.Create pivot table dialog on top of worksheet.

  9. Click OK.

    A new worksheet opens with a blank pivot table with the fields from our Voters (source) sheet carried over to the PivotTable Field List on the right.A blank pivot table.

  10. Drag a field down to the Rows Labels quadrant.

    I used the Precinct column. The left side of your sheet should show a row for each precinct.Move field down to rows quadrant with mouse.

  11. The next step is to ask what you would like to know about each precinct. 

    I’ll drag the PARTY field from the PivotTable Fields List to the Column Labels quadrant. The sheet updates and shows a breakout for each precinct. Note that no values are showing.Pivot table with row and columns.

  12. To see each political party’s counts, I need to drag the same field to the Values quadrant.

    Excel has determined that I want to COUNT the number of voters.Pivot table with populated fields columns & rows.

Tools:

  • Microsoft Excel

Additional Groupings and Options

As you build your Excel pivot table, you’ll think of more ways to group the information. For example, you might want to know the Age Range of voters by Precinct by Party. In this case, I would drag the AGE GROUP column from the PivotTable Field List below the PRECINCT value in Row Labels.

Marked up pivot table showing precincts.

Each age group is broken out and indented by precinct. At this stage, you might also be thinking of usability. As with a regular spreadsheet, you may manipulate the fields. For example, you might want to rename “Grand Total” to “Total” or even collapse the age values for one or more precincts. You can also hide or show rows and columns. These features work the same way as a regular spreadsheet.

One different area is the pivot table has its own options. You can use these options by right-clicking a cell within and selecting PivotTable Options… For example, you might only want Grand Totals for columns, not rows.

There are also ways to filter the data using the controls next to Row Labels or Column labels on the pivot table. You may also drag fields to the Report Filter quadrant.

Troubleshooting Excel Pivot Tables

You might encounter several “gotchas” with this example file or another spreadsheet. For example, sometimes, when you move around your pivot table, the PivotTable Field List disappears. To get it back, click any cell with a value.

You can also move or “pivot” your data by right-clicking a data field on the table and selecting the “Move” menu. From here, you can move a column to a row or even change the position. An example of this might be the “LAST VOTED” values since Excel will sort by the month first. You might prefer to move the data so the election dates are in chronological order.

I prefer not to add fields to a pivot table. I think it’s easier to add the fields first to your source spreadsheet. The reason is you might get items out of sync if you move data unless you make them a calculated field.

Another concern is blank fields. While making the example pivot table spreadsheet, I managed to create a “pivot table field name is not valid error.”

Excel pivot tables may not make the election exciting, but they can make the data analysis easier. Without these tables, you’d probably spend more time filtering, sorting, and subtotaling. The other benefit is that it’s easy to start over by deselecting fields or moving them around. Feel free to download the practice spreadsheet below and play with the data. This may be the only time you’re allowed to manipulate election data.

Practice Resource File

Click the button below to download the pivot table example file.