As the school year nears, I can count on a number of spreadsheet questions. One popular Excel question is, “how do you retrieve a value from one Excel cell and use it someplace else in Excel?” In this tutorial, I’ll step you through how the Excel VLOOKUP function helped me with some data analysis. This article includes an Additional Resources section at the end including a video tutorial and downloadable VLOOKUP example worksheets.
— If you’re using Google Sheets, please see Using Google Sheets & VLOOKUP.
When it comes to learning Microsoft Excel functions, I like to start with the easy example. This tutorial will provide two scenarios using different arguments and lookup values.
Feel free to jump ahead to any section by clicking a link below.
- VLOOKUP Definition
- Example 1 – One Worksheet & Approximate Match
- Understanding the VLOOKUP Function
- Breaking Down the Function
- Understanding the VLOOKUP Arguments
- Table Array Rules & Caveats
- Using VLOOKUP in Our Formula
- Example 2 – Multiple Sheets & Exact Match
- Using the Starting VLOOKUP Example File
- Defining the Argument Values
- Addional VLOOKUP Resources
VLOOKUP is an Excel function that allows you to search and retrieve a cell’s content from another column. As you might guess, that “V” stands for vertical and relies on looking up data from the leftmost column of a lookup table.
This column could be on the worksheet you’re using or another. The function requires a common field or key and four arguments. The function allows you to specify whether to use an exact match or approximate match. A common example might be looking up the name of a product from its SKU.
As we’ll see shortly, Excel provides hints about which arguments are required.
Example 1 – One Worksheet and Approximate Match
Over the years, I have volunteered to work on local elections. The part I tend to get assigned is the data analysis on the voter registration file. These tend to be large files with lots of information.
One data element is the voter’s birthdate. The worksheet data gets sliced, diced and repurposed. However, I didn’t want the voter’s birthdate to show on any of the distributed files.
Instead, I decided to create segments based on age ranges. I used a vertical lookup that would return the value to the desired cell. (Yes, some people are still mad at me for not revealing peoples’ ages.)
Understanding the VLOOKUP Function
Let’s start with the first fictitious voter, Sophia Collins. If you scan across to Column D you’ll see she is 39 years old and in the “Mature” segment. The value of “Mature” in Column E was dynamically pulled in using Excel’s VLOOKUP function.
The small table to the right with blue headings is the lookup table. Some people also refer to this lookup table as a table array. This is where I’ve defined my 4 age segments.
The way segments work is if a voter’s age is under 21, they are “New”. From 21-38, they are “Young”. From 39-59, they are “Mature” and if they are 60 or older they are “Senior”.
In the case of Sophia, Excel would take her age of 39 from cell D2 and find the closest match from Column H. Both these columns contain age data, which is our common key.
When Excel found a match it would then go to Column I and get the Label. That value was then copied to cell E2, the Segment. It might help to think of columns as being vertical. After all, this is a vertical lookup.
You might notice that the lookup table doesn’t list every age. It doesn’t have to because I’m using an approximate match. I’m telling Excel to find me the closest age.
For example, the next voter Evelyn Bennett is 51 but there is no value for 51 in Column H. In this case, 51 falls between 39 and 59 so she is also labeled “Mature”.
As you probably guessed, to use the VLOOKUP function there needs to a be a common key. In this case, it’s age. Both columns D and H contain ages. The headings and cell contents can be different.
Breaking Down the Function
Let’s peel away some of the mystery and display how VLOOKUP shows in the formula bar. In this illustration, I’ve clicked cell D2.
[A] – This represents the VLOOKUP formula for Cell D2
[B] – D2 is our first argument called Lookup_value.
[C] – $H2$2:$I$5 is our Table_array and the second argument.
[D] – 2 is the Col_index_num from your Table_array and the third argument.
[E] – TRUE is the Range_lookup and the fourth argument.
Understanding the VLOOKUP Arguments
The term “argument” isn’t as complicated as it sounds. If you’re familiar with the Excel formula bar, an argument is what goes in between the parentheses (). It provides some sort of input value for an Excel function.
Some functions have required arguments and others don’t need arguments. For example, to compute the voter’s age I also used the TODAY function =TODAY() which doesn’t use any arguments. Some common argument examples include:
- cell range
- true/false logical value
Using the formula from cell D2, here’s how these arguments work.
1. Lookup_value – Think of this field as your starting point. In this example, I want to look up Sophia’s Age from cell D2.
2. Table_array – This is the cell range for your lookup table. This range lookup can be on your existing worksheet or another worksheet.
Table Array Rules & Caveats
There are several rules to remember about this table array.
- Rule 1 – The left column must contain the values being referenced. Leftmost doesn’t mean it has to be in Column A. It’s just the leftmost column on the array. For example, on the table array above, the leftmost column is H.
- Rule 2 – You can’t have duplicate values in the leftmost column of the lookup range. I couldn’t have two entries with the value “39” with one being “Mature” and another “39” for “Go Getter”. Excel would complain.
- Rule 3 – When referring to the lookup table, you want absolute cell references when you copy the VLOOKUP formula to other cells.
For example, if I want to use the same formula in cells E3 through E11, I don’t want my lookup cell references shifting each time I move down to the next cell. I need the cell references to be constant. This is called an absolute cell reference.
After you define your lookup range of cells, you can press F4. This will cycle through absolute and relative cell references. You want to select the option that includes a $ before your Column and Row. You can get around this if you know how to use Excel name ranges.
3. Col_index_num – This is the number of the column on your lookup table that has the information you need. In our example, we want column 2 from the Label column. This will become our Segment name.
When we count, we’re counting the columns on the lookup table. Even though the “Label” column is Column I or the 9th column, it’s the 2nd column on the lookup table. Some people call this a Column Index.
4. Range-lookup – this field defines how close a match should exist between your Lookup_value (D2) and the value in the leftmost column on our lookup table. In our case, we want an approximate match so we’ll use “TRUE”.
Using VLOOKUP in Our Formula
- Add in the column where you’ll enter the formula. In my case, I added Column E – Segment.
- Click cell E2.
- Click your Formulas tab from the top menu.
- Click the Insert Function button.
- From the Insert Function dialog, type “vlookup” in the Search for a function textbox. You may also select it from the Lookup & Reference category.
- Click Go.
- Click OK.
- In Lookup_value type D2. Or, you can click the cell.
- In Table_array type $H$2:$I$5. Note the $ signs.
- In Col_index_num type 2.
- In Range_lookup type true.
- Click OK. You should now see “Mature” in cell E2.
- Click cell E2.
- Click the small green square (fill handle) in the cell’s lower right corner to copy the VLOOKUP formula down the column.
The Function Arguments dialog will appear with textboxes for the required arguments.
Your Function Arguments dialog should look like the following. Notice in the lower left, you can see the Formula result.
Example 2 – Multiple Worksheets & Exact Match
The second scenario also dealt with that same election file. This time there was an extra worksheet for political parties. The voter’s party was listed as an alphanumeric value called “Pcode” and not the political party.
This coding wasn’t intuitive. For example, “D” was for “American Independent Party”, but some thought it meant “Democratic Party”. Another difference was we needed an exact match for Party.
Again, the way to solve this problem was to use the worksheet with the Pcode and translation and have Excel use the VLOOKUP function for the Party name. I could then add a column called “Political Party” to my original worksheet to show the information from the lookup table.
Using the Starting VLOOKUP Example File
- Download the starting Excel sample file. The file link is at the bottom of this tutorial.
- Review the Voters worksheet. It has voter first and last names, but only a PCODE.
- Review the Party Codes worksheet. It has a listing of party codes and political names. Each of the Party Codes and Names are unique. You’ll also note that Column A is in sorted in ascending order.
- Add your new column on the Voters worksheet that will display the info pulled from the Lookup table on the Party Codes worksheet. In my example, I added a column called Political Party in Column D. This is where I will insert the Excel function.
- Place your cursor in the first blank cell in that column. In my example, this is cell D2.
- Follow the Steps 3-7 from Scenario 1.
Defining the Argument Values
After you click OK, Excel’s Function Arguments dialog appears and allows you to define the four values. You’ll see that your starting cell and the formula bar show the beginning part of the function =VLOOKUP(). The Function Arguments dialog adds the needed data elements that will display between ().
For illustration purposes, I have overlaid the Party Codes worksheet on top to show the relationships.
After entering the required arguments, my dialog looks like the example below.
You can see in the red outlined formula bar above, I now have more information based on my entries in the Function Arguments dialog box. You might also note that when I clicked the Party Codes worksheet to add in my Table_array, Excel prepended the tab name before the cell range. However, I need to go back and enter in my $ signs.
The other item of interest is that when you build these functions, Excel displays the result in the Formula result = text line. This is great feedback which can show if your function is on target. In our example, we can see Excel looked up the Pcode of “A” and returned the Political Party “Democratic”.
VLOOKUP is a powerful Excel function that can leverage spreadsheet data from other sources. There are many ways you can benefit from this function. In this example, I used a 1:1 code translation, but you could also use it for group assignments. For example, you could assign state codes to a region such as CT, VT, and MA to a region called “New England”.
If you’re trying to a do a horizontal lookup, you’ll be happy to learn that Excel has a HLOOKUP function. I haven’t done a HLOOKUP tutorial yet. If this interests you, let me know.