Excel for beginners: 13 ways to use Excel

Learn the basics

There are a number of “Excel for beginners” resources on the web, since Excel is used in almost every industry by almost every business. Most of those resources focus on the mechanics of how to use particular features of the tool.

This article is a little different.

Instead of diving into the mechanical “how do you do x or y?” questions of Excel formulas and formatting right off the bat, we’re going to instead focus on the what: What are the things you can do as an Excel beginner that you might not have thought of otherwise? (Don’t worry, we’ll get into a bunch of the other basics in here as well.)

What is Microsoft Excel?

So, of course, let’s start with a basic rundown. What is Microsoft Excel?

Excel is a spreadsheet-focused program made by Microsoft for all major devices and operating systems.

Spreadsheets are tables of information that utilize a grid made of cells, which are arranged into rows and columns indicated by numbers and letters, respectively.

Because cells can contain words as well as numbers and the customization options are endless, it’s possible to use Excel for a wide variety of different applications (as you’ll soon see). It’s been a staple of the business world for more than 20 years, and is frequently used by individuals for personal purposes as well.

Even if you don’t plan on spending much time on Excel in your professional environment, there are dozens of potential applications for the app in your personal life.

Editor’s note: Microsoft Excel is part of Office 365.

Excel for Beginners Spreadsheet on Laptop

Excel for beginners: 13 ways to use Excel

Now that we’ve introduced what Microsoft Excel is, let’s dive into some of the things you can do with it. It’s easier to understand the full range of Excel’s capabilities when you see the wide variety of potential uses, including:

  1. Calculations.
  2. Charts and graphs.
  3. Calendars and schedules.
  4. Inventory management.
  5. Time tracking.
  6. Goal tracking.
  7. Task lists.
  8. Project management.
  9. Quizzes and surveys.
  10. Forms.
  11. Mailing lists.
  12. Data analysis.
  13. Basic accounting.

Let’s take a look these most common uses for Excel beginners.

1. Calculations

With Excel, you can easily set up calculations between cells that contain numerical information. As a simple example, you can total up all the values in a single column and multiply it by a known variable.

You can use these calculations to manage loans, formulate budgets, and so on. This is the most fundamental use of Excel for beginners.

2. Charts and graphs

There are several features built into Excel that allow you to convert tables of numerical information into visual data — in other words, charts and graphs.

These are handy if you’re going to present information to a client or supervisor and need a concise way to display your findings.

They also add a bit of visual flair to your spreadsheet.

3. Calendars and schedules

If you like keeping track of your schedule or calendar items in a convenient row by column format, Excel is ideal.

This is especially useful if you have recurring events on certain days of the week; you can use each row to designate a different time slot or event, and each column to represent a different day.

Related: Time block your calendar to get more stuff done

4. Inventory management

If your business needs to keep track of inventory, whether you’re providing logistics, keeping things in a warehouse or just keeping a close eye on the inventory within a given store, Excel can work wonders.

You can keep a list of all your items, and use columns to designate the locations of those items. Automatic calculations come in handy here, too.

Excel For Beginners Spreadsheet
Photo: Microsoft

5. Time tracking

If you have employees or contractors who need to keep track of their time and you don’t have automated time tracking software, you can use an Excel template to keep track of those hours. You can use blocks of cells to represent each day of the week, provide spaces to define hours worked, and automatically calculate the hours worked for a given pay period.

6. Goal tracking

Excel also works for goal tracking. For example, you could create separate sheets for daily, weekly and monthly goals, and then use cells to keep track of what your goals are and whether or not you accomplished them.

Related: 7 ways to use Excel to keep track of your KPIs

7. Task lists

In a similar vein, Excel can help to keep track of tasks you need to accomplish, checking off individual cells or changing their color to indicate when you’ve finished with each task.

This is especially useful if you use it for long-term tracking, so you can evaluate your overall productivity over time.

8. Project management

With the right approach, you can create project management charts that help managers quickly visualize their progress with various projects.

You can use columns to group tasks and projects in various states of progress, and share that master spreadsheet with your teammates so everyone stays organized.

It may be a bit redundant if you’re already using project management software, but it should boost your team’s productivity otherwise.

Related: Use these project management apps to get more done

9. Quizzes and surveys

If you’re interested in quizzing yourself on specific questions, you can create a master list of questions and answers, and then use another sheet to quiz yourself on those questions.

With similar formatting, you could use Excel to send a bank of questions to a group of people as a survey — complete with drop-down menus your recipients can use to fill in predetermined possible answers.

10. Forms

Excel can also be used to create various forms, which range from simple to complex. Again, you can use custom drop-down menus here to give your recipients or coworkers a list of predetermined options to choose from.

11. Mailing lists

Buying email lists is a bad idea, but you can collect and manage email addresses fairly easily with a well-structured spreadsheet. This has the added bonus of being easily searchable, so you can find individual records quickly, or sort those records based on individual variables, like response rate or whether or not they’ve converted in the past.

Related: Beginner’s guide to starting an email list

12. Data analysis

Perhaps most importantly, Excel can be used as a data management platform. Many online applications offer detailed data breakdowns in a .csv format, which can quickly be compiled and displayed in Excel.

For beginners, this is often one of the “aha” moments.

 

One minute you have a big file filled with raw data, and the next you have insight.

Excel allows you to easily sort your records or upload them to another source, or if you use the right calculations and formulas, you can crunch those numbers so you can gain perspective more quickly.

13. Basic accounting

You can use Excel to keep track of expenses, plan budgets, produce financial reports, and make forecasts. You can set up automatic calculations so your totals update themselves every time you input new information, and if you share your spreadsheets with other people, you can track your company’s finances in real-time.

There are also many accounting templates you can use in Excel, minimizing the time it takes to create new reports.

Related: IT budgeting template for small business

Excel For Beginners Example
Photo: Microsoft

Even these applications are just scratching the surface of what Excel can do for a beginner who is new to the system.

Excel for beginners: Common gotchas

There are many ways you can use Excel. That said, it’s also important to be aware of some things that may trip you up, so you can watch out for them. Creating spreadsheets from scratch can be time-consuming — especially if you’re entering the data manually.

Working from a template can help, but if you’re creating a spreadsheet for a specific application, it’s unlikely that the template will fulfill your purpose exactly.

Collaborating on spreadsheets should be done thoughtfully. If you create a template for multiple coworkers to share, there’s no guarantee they won’t change or alter your original formatting. Similarly, if you have multiple people accessing and working on a single spreadsheet, it’s easy for one person to accidentally delete an important cell or input information in the wrong area.

Fortunately, some of the newer features of Excel minimize the possibility of this unfolding; you can set permissions to determine who can do what to your spreadsheet, and roll back any changes that compromise the integrity of your work.

Getting the hang of Excel takes a while; there’s a bit of a learning curve in play. The fundamentals of Excel for beginners is somewhat easy to grasp, but the higher-level formatting and function options can be difficult to learn.

Basic Excel commands to get you started

If you want to get started using Excel for almost any application, these are some of the first functions to check out:

Create a new spreadsheet

Excel should have automatically created a new spreadsheet for you when you opened the Excel application. If you already have the application open, you can click CTRL + N to create a new spreadsheet from scratch.

Adding multiple sheets

Within a single spreadsheet file, you can have multiple sheets open — and linked — simultaneously. On the bottom of your spreadsheet, you’ll see a + symbol, where you can open a new sheet within your file.

As you become more familiar with Excel, you can learn to tie these sheets together, with calculations that involve cells from multiple sheets at once. But for now, you can use a different sheet for each client, for each year — or based on some other defining criteria.

Writing cells and formatting

It’s pretty easy to add information to cells. Simply highlight the cell in which you want to include information, and start typing. You can also change cells to display the information you wrote in a specific format using the dropdown menu at the top.

For example, you can have the numbers displayed as a dollar value, as dates, or as a general cell.

While you’re at it, you can change the height and width of your rows and columns, respectively, by highlighting the edge lines of each row/column at the left/top of the screen and dragging them to the height/width you desire.

Auto-fill features

There are also many ways to use Excel’s AutoFill feature, which is ideal for big spreadsheets with repetitive formulas or types of information.

For example, you can use it to fill in specific formatting, or extend patterns (like months of the year or sequential numbering). If you have a long column of numbers, you can type in just the first few rows, highlight the numbers you’ve typed, and then start dragging down the column. Excel will figure out the pattern and begin to auto-fill the rest of the numbers in the column for you. (For beginners, this is sometimes another one of those “Oh, neat!” moments.)

Basic computations

Once you’ve got the writing and formatting options down, you can learn calculations
— especially if you’re going to work with numbers. Calculations are fairly intuitive; you can use:

  • + for addition
  • – for subtraction
  • * for multiplication
  • / for division

All equations in Excel need to begin with an equal sign, and from there, you can highlight cells (or add numbers) to complete the calculation. For example, the formula =B12+B13+5 would find the sum of whatever values are in B12 and B13, plus five. Calculations can get complicated, especially as you add in dynamic reference cells, but again, we want to start with the basics here.

Adding, deleting and rearranging rows and columns

You can click the row and column headings to highlight a row or column, and then click Insert to add a new row or column in that space, choosing an option that determines where the remaining rows and columns move to make room. You can also drag and drop rows and columns, or use cut/copy and insert functions to move those rows and columns around.

Keeping row and column titles visible as you scroll

Under the View tab, you can use Freeze Panes to keep your titles visible as you scroll. This is extremely helpful if you have key headings that need to stay visible as you fill in content in your rows and columns.

Advanced features to consider

When you feel you’ve mastered Excel for beginners, you can dip your toes in the water to learn a few more advanced features and commands:

Filters

Filters are used to narrow down the types of data you see in your worksheet and hide data from view that doesn’t fit the parameters. For example, you could set up filters to view data only from certain age ranges of participants.

This doesn’t delete the data, it simply hides those rows, which will pop back into view once you turn off the filter.

Duplicate removal

In the same Sort and Filter menu, you can use data tools to remove duplicate entries from your worksheet as well. Depending on what type of duplicates you want to remove, this setting can be complicated to apply.

Conditional formatting

Conditional formatting allows you to set rules or parameters for how a cell appears based on the content within. For example, you might toggle the color of the cell from red to green based on whether the value in the cell is above or below a certain numerical value.

VLOOKUP

VLOOKUP is a specific reference function that helps you find information in a table, or in a range by row. For example, you might need to find the name of a specific product based on its reference number. VLOOKUP can help you do this.

So there you have it, a quick trip through the multi-purpose tool that is Excel! There’s practically no limit to what you can do with Excel, especially once you familiarize yourself with the basic functions.

Even for beginners, Excel is approachable and usable, and for advanced users, it has nearly infinite applications. If you’re interested in getting started with Microsoft Excel, make sure you sign up for Microsoft Office 365.