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VLOOKUP function is THE benchmark.

You know something in Excel if you know how to use the VLOOKUP function.

If you don’t, you better not list Excel as one of your strong areas in your resume.

I have been a part of the panel interviews where as soon as the candidate mentioned Excel as his area of expertise, the first thing asked was – you got it – the VLOOKUP function.

Now that we know how important this Excel function is, it makes sense to ace it completely to be able to proudly say – “I know a thing or two in Excel”.

This is going to be a massive VLOOKUP tutorial (by my standards).

I’ll cover everything there is to know about it, and then show you useful and practical VLOOKUP examples.

So buckle up.

It’s time for the takeoff.

VLOOKUP function is best suited for situations when you are looking for a matching data point in a column, and when the matching data point is found, you go to the right in that row and fetch a value from a cell which is a specified number of columns to the right.

Let’s take a simple example here to understand when to use Vlookup in Excel.

Remember when the exam score list was out and pasted on the notice board and everyone used to go crazy finding their names and their score (at least that’s what used to happen when I was in school).

Here is how it worked:

You go up to the notice board and start looking for your name or enrolment number (running your finger from top to bottom in the list).

As soon as you spot your name, you move your eyes to the right of the name/enrolment number to see your scores.

And that is exactly what the Excel VLOOKUP function does for you (feel free to use this example in your next interview).

VLOOKUP function looks for a specified value in a column (in the above example, it was your name) and when it finds the specified match, it returns a value in the same row (the marks you obtained).

=VLOOKUP(lookup_value, table_array, col_index_num, [range_lookup])

lookup_value – this is the look-up value you are trying to find in the left-most column of a table. It could be a value, a cell reference, or a text string. In the score sheet example, this would be your name.

table_array – this is the table array in which you are looking for the value. This could be a reference to a range of cells or a named range. In the score sheet example, this would be the entire table that contains score for everyone for every subject

col_index – this is the column index number from which you want to fetch the matching value. In the score sheet example, if you want the scores for Math (which is the first column in a table that contains the scores), you’d look in column 1. If you want the scores for Physics, you’d look in column 2.

[range_lookup] – here you specify whether you want an exact match or an approximate match. If omitted, it defaults to TRUE – approximate match (see additional notes below).

The match could be exact (FALSE or 0 in range_lookup) or approximate (TRUE or 1).

In approximate lookup, make sure that the list is sorted in ascending order (top to bottom), or else the result could be inaccurate.

When range_lookup is TRUE (approximate lookup) and data is sorted in ascending order:

If the VLOOKUP function can not find the value, it returns the largest value, which is less than the lookup_value.

It returns a #N/A error if the lookup_value is smaller than the smallest value.

If lookup_value is text, wildcard characters can be used (refer to the example below).

Now, hoping that you have a basic understanding of what the VLOOKUP function can do, let’s peel this onion and see some practical examples of the VLOOKUP function.

Here are 10 useful exampels of using Excel Vlookup that will show you how to use it in your day-to-day work.

In the VLOOKUP example below, I have a list wth student names in the left-most column and marks in different subjects in columns B to E.

Now let’s get to work and use the VLOOKUP function for what it does best. From the above data, I need to know how much Brad scored in Math.

From the above data, I need to know how much Brad scored in Math.

Here is the VLOOKUP formula that will return Brad’s Math score:

=VLOOKUP("Brad",$A$3:$E$10,2,0)

The above formula has four arguments:

“Brad:

– this is the lookup value.

$A$3:$E$10

– this is the range of cells in which we are looking. Remember that Excel looks for the lookup value in the left-most column. In this example, it would look for the name Brad in A3:A10 (which is the left-most column of the specified array).

2

– Once the function spots Brad’s name, it will go to the second column of the array, and return the value in the same row as that of Brad. The value 2 here indicated that we are looking for the score from the second column of the specified array.

0

– this tells the VLOOKUP function to only look for exact matches.

Here is how the VLOOKUP formula works in the above example.

First, it looks for the value Brad in the left-most column. It goes from top to bottom and finds the value in cell A6.

As soon as it finds the value, it goes to the right in the second column and fetches the value in it.

You can use the same formula construct to get anyone’s marks in any of the subjects.

For example, to find Maria’s marks in Chemistry, use the following VLOOKUP formula:

=VLOOKUP("Maria",$A$3:$E$10,4,0)

In the above example, the lookup value (student’s name) is entered in double quotes. You can also use a cell reference that contains the lookup value.

The benefit of using a cell reference is that it makes the formula dynamic.

For example, if you have a cell with a student’s name, and you are fetching the score for Math, the result would automatically update when you change the student’s name (as shown below):

If you enter a lookup value that is not found in the left-most column, it returns a #N/A error.

In Example 1 above, we hard-coded the column value. Hence, the formula would always return the score for Math as we have used 2 as the column index number.

But what if you want to make both the VLOOKUP value and the column index number dynamic. For example, as shown below, you can change either the student name or the subject name, and the VLOOKUP formula fetches the correct score. This is an example of a two-way VLOOKUP formula.

This is an example of a two-way VLOOKUP function.

To make this two-way lookup formula, you need to make the column dynamic as well. So when a user changes the subject, the formula automatically picks the correct column (2 in the case of Math, 3 in the case of Physics, as so on..).

To do this, you need to use the MATCH function as the column argument.

Here is the VLOOKUP formula that will do this:

=VLOOKUP(G4,$A$3:$E$10,MATCH(H3,$A$2:$E$2,0),0)

The above formula uses MATCH(H3,$A$2:$E$2,0) as the column number. MATCH function takes the subject name as the lookup value (in H3) and returns its position in A2:E2. Hence, if you use Math, it would return 2 as Math is found in B2 (which is the second cell in the specified array range).

In the above example, we have to manually enter the data. That could be time-consuming and error-prone, especially if you have a huge list of lookup values.

A good idea in such cases is to create a drop-down list of the lookup values (in this case, it could be student names and subjects) and then simply choose from the list.

Based on the selection, the formula would automatically update the result.

Something as shown below:

This makes a good dashboard component as you can have a huge data set with hundreds of students at the back end, but the end user (let’s say a teacher) can quickly get the marks of a student in a subject by simply making the selections from the drop down.

How to make this:

The VLOOKUP formula used in this case is the same used in Example 2.

=VLOOKUP(G4,$A$3:$E$10,MATCH(H3,$A$2:$E$2,0),0)

The lookup values have been converted into drop-down lists.

Here are the steps to create the drop down list:

Select the cell in which you want the drop-down list. In this example, in G4, we want the student names.

In the Data Validation Dialogue box, within the settings tab, select List from the Allow drop-down.

In the source, select $A$3:$A$10

Now you’ll have the drop-down list in cell G4. Similarly, you can create one in H3 for the subjects.

What is a three-way lookup?

In Example 2, we’ve used one lookup table with scores for students in different subjects. This is an example of a two-way lookup as we use two variables to fetch the score (student’s name and the subject’s name).

Now, suppose in a year, a student has three different levels of exams, Unit Test, Midterm, and Final Examination (that’s what I had when I was a student).

A three-way lookup would be the ability to get a student’s marks for a specified subject from the specified level of exam.

Something as shown below:

In the above example, the VLOOKUP function can lookup in three different tables (Unit Test, Midterm, and Final Exam) and returns the score for the specified student in the specified subject.

Here is the formula used in cell H4:

This formula uses the CHOOSE function to make sure the right table is referred to. Let’s analyze the CHOOSE part of the formula:

CHOOSE(IF(H2=”Unit Test”,1,IF(H2=”Midterm”,2,3)),$A$3:$E$7,$A$11:$E$15,$A$19:$E$23)

The first argument of the formula is IF(H2=”Unit Test”,1,IF(H2=”Midterm”,2,3)), which checks the cell H2 and see what level of exam is being referred to. If it’s Unit Test, it returns $A$3:$E$7, which has the scores for Unit Test. If it’s Midterm, it returns $A$11:$E$15, else it returns $A$19:$E$23.

Doing this makes the VLOOKUP table array dynamic and hence makes it a three-way lookup.

You can create a VLOOKUP formula to get the last numerical value from a list.

The largest positive number that you can use in Excel is 9.99999999999999E+307. This also means that the largest lookup number in the VLOOKUP number is also the same.

I don’t think you would ever need any calculation involving such a large number. And that is exactly what we can use get the last number in a list.

Suppose you have a dataset (in A1:A14) as shown below and you want to get the last number in the list.

Here is the formula you can use:

=VLOOKUP(9.99999999999999E+307,$A$1:$A$14,TRUE)

Note that the formula above uses an approximate match VLOOKUP (notice TRUE at the end of the formula, instead of FALSE or 0). Also, note that the list doesn’t need to be sorted for this VLOOKUP formula to work.

Here is how the approximate VLOOKUP function works. It scans the left most column from top to bottom.

If it finds an exact match, it returns that value.

If it finds a value that is higher than the lookup value, it returns the value in the cell above it.

If the lookup value is greater than all the values in the list, it returns the last value.

In the above example, the third scenario is at work.

Since 9.99999999999999E+307 is the largest number that can be used in Excel, when this is used as the lookup value, it returns the last number from the list.

In the same way, you can also use it to return the last text item from the list. Here is the formula that can do that:

=VLOOKUP("zzz",$A$1:$A$8,1,TRUE)

The same logic follows. Excel looks through all the names, and since zzz is considered bigger than any name/text starting with alphabets before zzz, it would return the last item from the list.

Excel wildcard characters can be really helpful in many situations.

It’s that magic potion that gives your formulas super powers.

Partial look-up is needed when you have to look for a value in a list and there isn’t an exact match.

For example, suppose you have a data set as shown below, and you want to look for the company ABC in a list, but the list has ABC Ltd instead of ABC.

However, you can use a wildcard character within the VLOOKUP function to get the match.

Enter the following formula in cell D2 and drag it to the other cells:

=VLOOKUP("*"&C2&"*",$A$2:$A$8,1,FALSE)

How does this formula work?

In the above formula, instead of using the lookup value as is, it is flanked on both sides with the wildcard character asterisk (*) – “*”&C2&”*”

An asterisk is a wildcard character in Excel and can represent any number of characters.

Using the asterisk on both sides of the lookup value tells Excel that it needs to look for any text that contains the word in C2. It could have any number of characters before or after the text in C2.

For example, cell C2 has ABC, so the VLOOKUP function looks through the names in A2:A8 and searches for ABC. It finds a match in cell A2, as it contains ABC in ABC Ltd. It doesn’t matter if there are any characters to the left or right of ABC. Until there is ABC in a text string, it will be considered a match.

Note: VLOOKUP function always returns the first matching value and stops looking further. So if you have ABC Ltd., and ABC Corporation in a list, it will return the first one and ignore the rest.

It can drive you crazy when you see that there is a matching lookup value and the VLOOKUP function is returning an error.

For example, in the below case, there is a match (Matt), but the VLOOKUP function still returns an error.

Now while we can see there is a match, what we can not see with a naked eye is that there could be leading or trailing spaces. If you have these additional spaces before, after, or in between the lookup values, it ISN’T an exact match.

This is often the case when you import data from a database or get it from someone else. These leading/trailing spaces have a tendency to sneak in.

The solution here is the TRIM function. It removes any leading or trailing spaces or extra spaces between words.

Here is the formula that’ll give you the right result.

=VLOOKUP("Matt",TRIM($A$2:$A$9),1,0)

Since this is an array formula, use Control + Shift + Enter instead of just Enter.

Another way could be to first treat your lookup array with the TRIM function to make sure all the additional spaces are gone, and then use the VLOOKUP function as usual.

By default, the lookup value in the VLOOKUP function is not case sensitive. For example, if your lookup value is MATT, matt, or Matt, it’s all the same for the VLOOKUP function. It’ll return the first matching value irrespective of the case.

But if you want to do a case-sensitive lookup, you need to use the EXACT function along with the VLOOKUP function.

Here is an example:

As you can see, there are three cells with the same name (in A2, A4, and A5) but with a different alphabet case. On the right, we have the three names (Matt, MATT, and matt) along with their scores in Math.

Now the VLOOKUP function is not equipped to handle case-sensitive lookup values. In this above example, it would always return 38, which is the score for Matt in A2.

To make it case sensitive, we need to use a helper column (as shown below):

To get the values in the helper column, use the =ROW() function. It will simply get the row number in the cell.

Once you have the helper column, here is the formula that will give the case-sensitive lookup result.

Now let’s break down and understand what this does:

EXACT(E2,$A$2:$A$9)

– This part would compare the lookup value in E2 with all the values in A2:A9. It returns an array of TRUEs/FALSEs where TRUE is returned where there is an exact match. In this case, it would return the following array: {TRUE;FALSE;FALSE;FALSE;FALSE;FALSE;FALSE;FALSE}.

EXACT(E2,$A$2:$A$9)*(ROW($A$2:$A$9)

– This part multiplies the array of TRUEs/FALSEs with the row number. Wherever there is a TRUE, it gives the row number, else it gives 0. In this case, it would return {2;0;0;0;0;0;0;0}.

MAX(EXACT(E2,$A$2:$A$9)*(ROW($A$2:$A$9)))

– This part returns the maximum value from the array of numbers. In this case, it would return 2 (which is the row number where there is an exact match).

Now we simply use this number as the lookup value and use the lookup array as B2:C9

Note: Since this is an array formula, use Control + Shift + Enter instead of just enter.

Excel VLOOKUP function, in its basic form, can look for one lookup value and return the corresponding value from the specified row.

But often there is a need to use VLOOKUP in Excel with multiple criteria.

Suppose you have a data with students name, exam type, and the Math score (as shown below):

Using the VLOOKUP function to get the Math score for each student for respective exam levels could be a challenge.

For example, if you try using VLOOKUP with Matt as the lookup value, it’ll always return 91, which is the score for the first occurrence of Matt in the list. To get the score for Matt for each exam type (Unit Test, Mid Term and Final), you need to create a unique lookup value.

This can be done using the helper column. The first step is to insert a helper column to the left of the scores.

Copy this formula to all the cells in the helper column. This will create unique lookup values for each instance of a name (as shown below):

Now, while there were repetitions of the names, there is no repetition when the name is combined with the level of examination.

This makes it easy as now you can use the helper column values as the lookup values.

Here is the formula that’ll give you the result in G3:I8.

Here we have combined the student name and the level of examination to get the lookup value, and we use this lookup value and checks it in the helper column to get the matching record.

Note that while A2 and A3 are different and B2 and B3 are different, the combinations end up being the same. But if you use a separator, then even the combination would be different (D2 and D3).

Here is a tutorial on how to use VLOOKUP with multiple criteria without using helper columns. You can also watch my video tutorial here.

Excel VLOOKUP function returns an error when it can not find the specified lookup value. You may not want the ugly error value disturbing the aesthetics of your data in case VLOOKUP can’t find a value.

You can easily remove the error values with any meaning full text such as “Not Available” or “Not Found”.

For example, in the example below, when you try to find the score of Brad in the list, it returns an error as Brad’s name is not there in the list.

To remove this error and replace it with something meaningful, wrap your VLOOKUP function within the IFERROR function.

Here is the formula:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP(D2,$A$2:$B$7,2,0),"Not Found")

The IFERROR function checks if the value returned by the first argument (which is the VLOOKUP function in this case) is an error or not. If it’s not an error, it returns the value by the VLOOKUP function, else it returns Not Found.

IFERROR function is available from Excel 2007 onwards. If you are using versions prior to that, use the following function:

=IF(ISERROR(VLOOKUP(D2,$A$2:$B$7,2,0)),"Not Found",VLOOKUP(D2,$A$2:$B$7,2,0))

Also See: How to handle VLOOKUP Errors in Excel.

That’s it in this VLOOKUP tutorial.

Note: I’ve tried my best to proofread this tutorial, but in case you find any errors or spelling mistakes, please let me know 🙂

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