Excel Step-by-Step Basic Tutorial

Using Excel isn't as hard as it seems

Excel is an electronic spreadsheet program for storing, organizing, and manipulating data. Since each worksheet in Excel contains billions of cells, each cell has an address known as a cell reference that formulas, functions, charts, and other features used to refer to a specific cell.

Entering Data into Your Worksheet

Entering data into worksheet cells is always a three-step process.

  1. Select the cell where you want the data to go.

  2. Type the data into the cell.

  3. Press the Enter key on the keyboard or click on another cell with the mouse.

Each cell in a worksheet is identified by an address or cell reference, which consists of the column letter and number of the row that intersect at a cell's location. When writing a cell reference, the column letter is always written first, followed by the row number – such as A5, C3, or D9.

Widening Columns in Excel

By default, a cell's width permits only eight characters to be displayed before that data spills over into the next cell to the right.

If the cell to the right contains data, the first cell's contents are truncated to the first eight characters. To correct this problem so that the data is fully visible, you need to widen the columns containing that data (Column A and B). As with all Microsoft programs, there are multiple ways to resize columns, but using the mouse is probably the easiest. 

  1. Place the mouse pointer on the line between columns A and B in the column header. The pointer will change to a double-headed arrow.

  2. Press and hold down the left mouse button and drag the double-headed arrow to the right to widen column A until the entire entry is visible.

    Dragging column width
  3. Widen other columns to show data as needed.

If the worksheet title is long compared to the other labels in column A, widening to show the entire contents of cell A1 would make the sheet not only look odd but also difficult to work with because of the gaps between the labels on the left and the other columns of data.

Alternatively, Excel has a merge and center feature that you can use to center the title over the data table.

Adding the Date

It is common to add the date to a spreadsheet to indicate when it was last updated. Excel has a few date functions that make it easy to add a date to a worksheet. Functions formulas built-into Excel to make it easy to complete commonly performed tasks.

The TODAY function is easy to use because it has no arguments, which are the values required by most functions. It's also one of Excel's volatile functions, which means it updates itself every time the recalculates, usually every time a user opens the worksheet.

Excel spreadsheet showing the current date in cell C2.

Adding a Named Range

To make a range of data easier to identify, you can give it a name. You can use named ranges as a substitute for cell reference in functions, formulas, and charts. The easiest way to create named ranges is to use the name box located in the top left corner of the worksheet above the row numbers.

Rate box and cell C3 in Excel

Entering a Formula

Excel formulas allow you to perform calculations on numerical data in a worksheet. You can use formulas for basic number crunchings, such as addition or subtraction, as well as more complex calculations, such as finding a student's average on test results and calculating mortgage payments.

Formula bar in Excel, reading "=B6*rate"
  • Formulas in Excel always begin with an equal sign ( = ).
  • The equal sign goes into the cell where you want the answer to appear.
  • To complete the formula, press the Enter key on the keyboard.

Using Cell References in Formulas

A common way of creating Excel formulas involves entering the formula data into worksheet cells and then using the cell references for the formula's data instead of the data itself.

The advantage of this approach is that if it becomes necessary to change the data, it is a simple matter of replacing the cells' data rather than rewriting the formula. The results of the formula will update automatically once the data changes.

Using Named Ranges in Formulas

An alternative to cell references is to use named ranges – such as those created in the previous step.

In a formula, a named range function the same as a cell reference. Still, it's helpful when dealing with values that are used several times in different formulas – such as a deduction rate for pensions or health benefits, a tax rate, or a scientific constant –. In contrast, cell references are more practical in formulas that refer to specific data only once.

Copying Formulas

Rather than going through the time-consuming task of recreating each formula, most of the time, you can copy it to other cells. These circumstances most often involve using a specific type of cell reference – known as a relative cell reference – in the formulas.

The cell references we've used in the preceding formulas are relative cell references, which is the default type of cell reference in Excel, and make copying formulas as straightforward as possible.

One of the most common methods for copying cell contents is by using the Fill Handle.

Deduction and Net Salary columns

The fill handle is a small black dot or square in the active cell's bottom right corner. There are several uses for the fill handle, including copying a cell’s contents to adjacent cells, filling cells with a series of numbers or text labels, and copying formulas.

Applying Number Formatting in Excel

Number formatting refers to the addition of currency symbols, decimal markers, percent signs, and other symbols that help identify the type of data present in a cell and make it easier to read.

  1. Select the cell to format.

  2. In the Number group of the Home tab, select the Number Format option to open the Format drop-down menu.

  3. Choose a format option. For example, Percentage will change the value format to a percentage and Currency will change the formatting of the values to a currency with two decimal places.

    Currency menu item in Excel

Applying Cell Formatting in Excel

Cell formatting options including bolding text or numbers, changing data alignment, adding borders, and using the merge and center feature to improve the appearance of the data in a cell.

Font and Alignment areas on Home tab in Excel

Adding Borders to Cells

This step will add bottom borders to the cells.

  1. Select the cells to which you want to add bottom borders.

  2. In the Font group of the Home tab, select the down arrow next to the Border icon.

  3. Select the Bottom Border option in the menu to add a border to the bottom of the merged cell.

    Bottom, Top, Left, and Right Border menu items