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Student Experiences

Becoming a Spreadsheet Master

Class begins with everyone looking intently at the same spreadsheet on their laptops. Today’s task: learning how to calculate financial ratios like debt-to-equity, asset turnover, and net profit margin—with the click of a button.

The classroom gets louder as students go to work, using Excel functions to pull information from companies’ online income statements and balance sheets. 


They may not be Padawans, but students in ISys 515 and MBA 615, Spreadsheets for Business Analysis—more popularly known as “Jedi Spreadsheets”—are trained to use Excel spreadsheets as the ultimate analysis tool.

In the class, taught by professor Rayman Meservy, undergraduate and graduate students alike learn how to master spreadsheet skills to support business decision making. 

“Spreadsheets are the most powerful tool out there,” says Meservy, who has been teaching the class for four years. “My guess is that 90 percent of people using spreadsheets use only 5 to 10 percent of the functions they offer.”

In each class students learn a new skill or way to solve a problem. Topics covered include graphing techniques, data validation, sensitivity analyses, and pivot tables.

Early in the semester, Meservy presents a case of a company trying to decide how many computer chips to produce and how to ship them at the cheapest cost. By setting up a solver in Excel, the students take on the challenge and find the best combination solution to maximize profits and minimize costs. And that’s just one day of class.

“We do a lot of what-if type analyses where you can change quantities or prices and see how it flows to the bottom line,” says Trevor Flint, an MBA finance student from Ogden, Utah. “It gives you a good idea of how to make management decisions—whether to raise prices, reduce prices, or increase the amount of units you’re producing.”

Students from all majors and emphases within the Marriott School are invited to become spreadsheet Jedis by enrolling in the course and sharpening their skills. 

“This class gives students a strong background that employers love, because they are able to be fast and efficient and they know how to use tools no one else does,” Meservy says. 

An internship supervisor told one of Meservy’s students that he could have a full-time job if he took the spreadsheets class. Another former student was working on pivot tables for a local law firm. His supervisors asked him to run some analyses, thinking it would take him weeks. In under two hours, he came back with the results and several additional suggestions.

Experiences like these aren’t unusual; Meservy says students relay similar stories every semester, and he receives emails from graduates explaining how they are using the tools in many different industries.

“Spreadsheets were the reason businesses needed to have computers early on,” Meservy says. “Good skills in this area will always be in demand because of the flexibility they add—you’re not just solving one problem, you’re solving all sorts of business application problems.”