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, first select or highlight the appropriate cells. If you want to highlight cells with a color, select the cells and apply a color from the ribbon in Excel or use the fill and stroke options in Google Sheets.

Information in this article applies to Excel 2019, 2016, 2013, 2010; Excel for Office 365; Excel Online; Excel for Mac; and Google Sheets.

Reasons to Highlight Cells for Editing or Formatting

There are several reasons to highlight cells in a spreadsheet. Select cells when you want 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 using either the mouse or keyboard. Different ways to highlight spreadsheet cells include:

  • Select cells with the mouse using the click and drag method.
  • Select adjacent cells with the keyboard using the Shift and arrow keys.
  • Select cells by entering a range in the Name Box.

When multiple cells are highlighted in a worksheet there is only one active cell. 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 the mouse, the process includes a bit of clicking and dragging.

To use the mouse to highlight cells:

  1. Select a single cell. This represents the upper-right 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.

    Screenshot in Excel showing cell highlighting with the mouse
  4. Release the mouse button to complete the selection.

Highlight Cells Using the Keyboard

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

To use the keyboard to highlight cells:

  1. Select a single cell.

  2. Press and hold the Shift key.

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

    Screenshot in Excel showing cell highlighting with the keyboard

Highlight All Cells

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

Apply a Highlight Color

To format a cell or cells with a color background to apply a highlighting effect, first select the cells using one of the methods mentioned above.

After you've made a selection:

  • In Excel, go to the Home tab and, in the Styles group, select Cell Styles to open a list of options. Make your selection from the Themed Cell Styles section.
  • In Google Sheets, select the Fill icon in the ribbon to apply a highlight color.
Apply a background color highlight to cells