Highlighting Individual or Multiple Cells in Spreadsheets

Highlight to select cells for data entry or to colorize cells

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When you want to edit or format data in an Excel or Google Sheets worksheet, you first select or highlight the appropriate cells. If you want to instead highlight cells with a color in the traditional colored marker way, select the cells and apply a color from the ribbon (in the case of Excel) or using the fill and stroke options in Google Sheets.

The information in this article applies to Excel versions 2019, 2016, 2013, 2010, Excel Online, and Excel for Mac. It also applies to Google Sheets.

Reasons to Highlight Cells for Editing or Formatting

There are several reasons you may want to highlight cells in a spreadsheet. Selecting cells is necessary to:

  • Format the cell or the data in the cell, such as a cell border or font color
  • Include cell references when adding a formula to a worksheet
  • Select a range of data to be used to create a chart
  • Insert a cell or range of cells into a function's dialog box to act as an argument

How to Select Spreadsheet Cells

There are multiple ways to highlight cells. The easiest way is to use the mouse, but keyboard lovers and others have a range of options. Different ways to highlight spreadsheet cells include:

  • Select cells with the mouse by using the click and drag method.
  • Select adjacent cells using the Shift key and arrow keys on the keyboard.
  • Type or select a range in the Name Box.

When multiple cells are highlighted in a worksheet there is still only one active cell. This means that if data is entered with multiple cells selected, the data is only entered into the active cell.

Highlight Cells Using the Mouse

If you prefer to highlight cells using your mouse, the process includes a bit of clicking and dragging.

Screenshot in Excel showing cell highlighting with the mouse

To use your mouse to highlight cells:

  1. Select a single cell. This represents the upper rightmost cell of the selection.

  2. Hover over the center of the selected cell. The cursor changes to a white plus ( + ) symbol.

  3. Click and drag the mouse to expand the selection to include other cells.

  4. Release the mouse button to complete the selection.

Highlight Cells Using the Keyboard

If you prefer to highlight cells using your keyboard with a few shortcuts, follow this alternative method using your arrow keys.

Screenshot in Excel showing cell highlighting with the keyboard

To use the keyboard to highlight cells:

  1. Select a single cell.

  2. Press and hold the Shift button on the keyboard.

  3. Press an arrow key (Up, Down, Left, or Right) to expand the onscreen selection in the specified direction.

Highlighting All Cells

To highlight all the cells in a worksheet, use Ctrl + A (Windows) or Command + A (macOS).

Applying a Highlight Color

Apply a background color highlight to cells

If you are interesting in formatting a cell or cells with a color background to apply a highlighting effect, you first need to select them using one of the methods mentioned above.

After you've made a selection:

  • In Excel, select the Home tab and select Cell Styles. Make your selection in the window that opens from the Themed Cell Styles section.
  • In Google Sheets, select the Fill icon in the ribbon to apply a highlight color.

If you are working in a wide document in Excel, rather than seeing Cell Styles in the ribbon, you may see color blocks next to Format as Table. In this case, select the downward-facing arrow in the color block section to expand the options.