Excel Basics: Getting Started With Excel

excelbasicsExcel is not just the most popular spreadsheet program, it is one of the most popular programs of any kind. Originally released by Microsoft in 1985, it has become the default spreadsheet software in most industries. Over its nearly 30 year development period, Excel has evolved into a powerful, robust and flexible spreadsheet program capable of performing complex mathematical procedures, producing gorgeous graphs, and automating tasks with custom programming.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, a stock broker, an accountant, a sales rep or a marketer, a mastery of Excel will help you a great deal in your day to day tasks. You can start learning Excel with this Excel 2010 training course for beginners that has over 44,000 happy students!

Below, we’ll take a look at the four Excel basics you need to know:

1. Understanding Cells

A cell is the basic unit of any Excel spreadsheet. It can hold text, numbers or formulas. Each cell is referenced by its row number and column alphabet. Columns are arranged alphabetically. Columns after the 26th are labelled AA, AB, AC and so on. Rows, meanwhile, are arranged numerically. Altogether, Excel 2010 supports 16,384 columns and 1,048,576 rows for a total of 17,179,869,184 cells – easily more than you’ll ever need!

To identify any cell, refer to it by its column alphabet and row number. Thus, vertically, the first cell is labelled A1, the second A2, and so on (horizontally: A1, B1, C1, etc.).  The active cell in any worksheet is identified by a bold black border around that cell. You can also increase or decrease the height and width of any row or column, or select a range of cells by dragging a box around them.

Get familiar with cells – you’ll be using them a lot to create formulas and carry out calculations.

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2. Formatting Cells

Excel isn’t a word processor, but it still boasts a surprisingly powerful array of formatting options. Besides the usual formatting procedures – bold, italics, underline, changing text/fill colors – you can also change text orientation. There’s also a handy format painter, custom cell styles, and a ‘Merge & Center’ button that spans text across multiple columns.

A handy tool is the ‘Number Format’ menu in the ‘Home’ ribbon. This menu gives easy access to various data format styles, including time, accounting, long/short dates, time, percentage and fractions. Combined with the above formatting options, this can help you create great looking spreadsheets.

3. Using Formulas

Formulas are the heart and soul of Excel, without which, the software is just a glorified ledger. Excel ships with a huge variety of in-built formulas which can be seen under the ‘Formula’ ribbon. There are formulas for performing logical operations, financial calculations, formatting text, working with dates and time, and even doing complex mathematical and trigonometric calculations. If these aren’t enough, you can also create your own formulas.

Every formula is entered into an empty cell. Each formula must start with the ‘=’ sign and must specify either a set of cells, or a cell range. A cell range is written in the following format – ‘FirstCell:LastCell’. Thus, if you were to refer to all the cells from A1 to A20, you would use the following range – ‘A1:A20’.

One of the most common formula is the SUM or addition formula. Although Excel has a conveniently located AutoSum formula right in the ‘Home’ ribbon, you can also call on the formula using the following format:

                =sum(First Cell: Last Cell)

Thus, if we want to add the contents of the first and the 20th cell, we would write:


To add the contents of a limited number of cells (say, cells A1, A2, and A3), we don’t need to use the SUM formula. Instead, we can simply write:


We can also perform subtraction, division and multiplication in similar fashion:

                Subtraction:       =A1-A2-A3
Division:               =A1/A2
Multiplication    = A1 * A2 * A3

You can even perform complex calculations, such as:

                =((A1 + A2) * A3) – ((A3/A2) * A2)

Try working with some simple formulas in your own Excel worksheet. Enter a few numbers into a few empty cells. Add, subtract, divide and multiply them using the formulas outlined above.

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4. Creating Graphs and Charts

Nice though they may be, spreadsheets don’t really make a really strong visual impact. Which is why Excel ships with powerful graphing and charting capabilities. You can view them under the ‘Insert’ tab in the ribbon. Your options range from column, line, pie and bar charts to complex radar, stock and surface charts.

Creating a chart is easy. All you need to do is select the cells that need to be charted (using either Shift + click, or selecting a cell range by dragging over the cells), click on any of the chart-types under ‘Insert’, choose the right visual/data design, and you’ll be good to go. Excel gives you comprehensive formatting options to change the color, font, and style of the chart.

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What are your favorite basic Excel tips and tricks? Share them with us in the comments below!