The University of Texas at Austin

Getting Started with Microsoft Excel

17 February 2004
Copyright, Information Technology Services
The University of Texas at Austin

This handout introduces the basic features of Microsoft Excel, a spreadsheet program on Macintoshes and on computers running Microsoft Windows. The handout covers entering and editing data, formatting, formulas, page setup, and printing spreadsheets.

Starting Excel

You can start Excel by:

1. Double-clicking on the Microsoft Excel application icon. This application is usually in a folder called Excel. An alias for this icon appears on the desktop of the computers in the Student Microcomputer Facility.
excel application icon graphic
2. Double-clicking on the icon of any Excel document. When you double-click an Excel document, Excel opens with the document already loaded. excel document icon graphic


Exploring the Excel Interface

Components of the Excel Window

Besides the usual window components (close box, title bar, scroll bars, etc.), an Excel window has several unique elements identified in the figure below.

excel interface  graphic

Standard Toolbar

The Standard toolbar, located beneath the menu bar, has buttons for commonly performed tasks like adding a column of numbers, printing, sorting, and other operations. Excel let's you customize the toolbar or even display multiple toolbars at the same time. The Standard Excel XP toolbar appears in the figure below.

excel standard toolbar graphic

Formatting toolbar

The Formatting toolbar, located beneath the Standard toolbar bar, has buttons for various formatting operations like changing text size or style, formatting numbers and placing borders around cells.

excel formatting toolbar graphic

Formula bar

The formula bar is located beneath the toolbar at the top of the Excel worksheet. Use the formula bar to enter and edit worksheet data. The contents of the active cell always appear in the formula bar. When you click the mouse in the formula bar, an X and a check mark appear. You can click the check icon to confirm and completes editing, or the X to abandon editing.

excel formula bar graphic

Name box

The Name box displays the reference of the selected cells.

Row and column headings

Letters and numbers identify the rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet. The intersection of a row and a column is called a cell. Use row and column headings to specify a cell's reference. For example, the cell located where column B and row 7 intersect is called B7.

Active cell

The active cell has a dark border around it to indicate your position in the worksheet. All text and numbers that you type are inserted into the active cell. Click the mouse on a cell to make it active.

Fill handle

The lower right corner of the active cell has a small box called a Fill Handle. Your mouse changes to a cross-hair when you are on the Fill Handle. The Fill Handle helps you copy data and create series of information. For example, if you type January in the active cell and then drag the Fill Handle over four cells, Excel automatically inserts February, March, April and May.

Worksheet tabs

An Excel workbook consists of multiple worksheets. Use the worksheet tabs at the bottom of the screen to navigate between worksheets within a workbook.

Working with Excel documents

Opening and Closing Documents

To open an existing Excel workbook, choose Open from the File menu or click the Open tool on the toolbar.

excel open icon graphic

Excel will display the Open dialog box, which is similar in appearance and function to the Save As dialog box. It contains a File Name: box for you to type a file name or file specification, a Look In: box to designate a location, and a drop-down menu of file types.

excel save and save as window graphic

To open a file, select the appropriate location by clicking on the down pointing arrow next to the Look In: selection box. Excel will display all Excel files found there. Select the file you wish to open and click Open to open the file.

Saving a Document

The lower right corner of the active cell has a small box called a Fill Handle. Your mouse changes to a cross-hair when you are on the Fill Handle. The Fill Handle helps you copy data and create series of information. For example, if you type January in the active cell and then drag the Fill Handle over four cells, Excel automatically inserts February, March, April and May.

To save an untitled Excel workbook, from the File menu choose Save As or click the Save button on the toolbar (shown at right). The Excel Save As dialog box is the same as the Open dialog box above except it is labeled "Save As"

excel save icon graphic

The Save As dialog box contains a text box for you to type a specific filename, a "Save File as Type:" box to save your workbook in a different format that other programs can read, a selection box to designate the folder and drive in which to save the file, and a "Places Bar" that offers other locations to save your file.

Difference between Save As and Save

Notice on the File menu there is a Save command and a Save As command. Use Save to save an existing workbook with the same name in the same location. Use Save As when you want to save a file with a different name or save it in a different location. For example, suppose you are working on a workbook called BUDGET.XLS. After you edit the workbook, you should save it again using the Save command. The Save command will replace the copy on the hard drive with what is in memory (what you see on your screen). At the end of the day, you might want to save a copy of the file on a diskette to take home. Choose Save As and select the proper drive in the Save As dialog box. This will create another copy of the file on your diskette.

Creating a New Workbook

The lower right corner of the active cell has a small box called a Fill Handle. Your mouse changes to a cross-hair when you are on the Fill Handle. The Fill Handle helps you copy data and create series of information. For example, if you type January in the active cell and then drag the Fill Handle over four cells, Excel automatically inserts February, March, April and May.

If you are already in Excel and you want to create a new workbook, choose New from the File menu or click the New tool on the toolbar. If you choose New from the file menu the Task Pane will open on the right side of the Excel worksheet. To create a blank workbook, click Blank Workbook in the Task Pane, and a new workbook opens.

excel new icon graphic
excel task pane window graphic

Managing Multiple Workbooks

Excel enables you to have more than one workbook open simultaneously. Each open workbook appears on the Window menu. The document with the check next to it is the active document. To switch to another document, simply choose that document from the Window menu.

To navigate between worksheets within a workbook, click the worksheet tab you want to activate. Double-click a worksheet tab to change its name.

Entering and Editing Data

Entering Data

You can enter text, numbers and dates in an Excel worksheet. In Excel¹s terminology, numbers and dates are called values and text is referred to as a label. To enter data of any type, click on the cell you want to contain that data, and then type the information you want in the cell. When you begin typing, your data also appears in the formula bar. When you have finished typing the data for the active cell, press the Return or Enter key.

Editing Data

The easiest way to edit the contents of a cell is to select the cell and then retype the entry. The new entry replaces the old contents. For example, to change the number in cell B6 to 199, select cell B6, type 199 and press Return. This method works well with numbers, but is more difficult when editing long text labels or formulas.

The formula bar gives you more flexibility while editing. When the mouse pointer moves into the formula bar, it changes shape to an I-beam, signifying that you can enter or edit text. Text in the active cell appears in the formula bar and you can edit it there. Use the mouse to select the text you want to change in the formula bar and then type the new text. Excel automatically replaces what is selected. Don't forget to press the Return key when you finish editing a cell.

You can also edit labels and values directly in cells. Double-click on the cell you want to edit. This puts an insertion point in the cell. Edit the contents of that cell the same way you would using the formula bar.

Moving the Active Cell

Cell selection and movement around the worksheet are similar operations in Excel. To select a given cell or make it active, simply click on that cell. Use the mouse or the arrow keys to move around the worksheet. For example, if you press the right arrow key twice you move two cells to the right.

Refer to the table below for additional information on using the keyboard to navigate a worksheet.

To move Press this key
One cell left Left Arrow
One cell right Right Arrow
One cell up Up Arrow
One cell down Down Arrow
To top of worksheet (cell A1) Control Home
To last cell containing data Control End
To end of data in a column Control Down Arrow
To beginning of data in a column Control Up Arrow
To end of data in a row Control Right Arrow
To beginning of data in a row Control Left Arrow

Go To Command

A quick way to move a large distance on a worksheet is with the Go To command on the Edit menu. When you select the Go To command, a dialog box prompts you to identify the cell. Enter the cell reference and click OK or press Return.

Clearing Cell Contents

To clear the contents of a cell choose Clear from the Edit menu. Then, select what you want to clear from the cell: All, Formats, Contents, or Notes. Most frequently you will want to clear the Contents of a cell. Pressing the Delete key also clears the contents of cells.

Undoing Mistakes

If you make a terrible mistake and you accidentally delete important data. Use the Undo command on the Edit menu or the Undo tool to correct the mistake.

Copying and Moving Data

Copy selected data from one cell to another with the Copy and Paste commands, or with the Drag and Drop procedure. If you want to move data instead, use the Cut and Paste commands, or the Drag and Drop procedure.

These commands and procedures are described below.


The Cut command extracts the selected data and puts it on the Clipboard, a temporary storage area. The contents of the Clipboard are overwritten with each copy or cut.


The Copy command puts a copy of the selected data on the Clipboard.


The Paste command inserts the Clipboard¹s contents into the active cell. Selected data is replaced by pasted text.

Drag and Drop

This procedure does not involve the Clipboard and works best when moving data a short distance. To move cells, position the mouse on the cell borders. Wait until the mouse changes to a left-pointing arrow. When the mouse is this shape, press and drag the data to the new location.

Formatting Data

Changing formats using the toolbar

In Excel, you can change text fonts and styles in the worksheet. Excel has a Formatting toolbar to simplify basic formatting tasks. The Formatting toolbar appears in the figure below.

excel formatting toolbar graphic

The formatting toolbar has several tools you can use to change formats. The B button makes cells bold, the I button italicizes cells and the U button underlines. Use these buttons to turn formats off as well as on. For example, if cells are bold and you want to turn off that format, select the cells and click the B button. The toolbar also has buttons to change font and size.

Font tab in Format Cells

The formatting toolbar offers quick access to varying text formats. For a more complete selection of formatting options, use the Font tab in the Format Cells dialog box.

excel format cells dialog box graphic

In the Font section you can select Font, Size, Style, Color and Effects. Notice the Preview area in the dialog box. This shows a preview of the font and style you select before you click the OK button.


By default, Excel left-aligns labels and right-aligns values in a worksheet. You can change cell alignment using the toolbar or the Format Cells command.

The toolbar has text alignment icons next to the bold and italic icons. You can left-align, right-align, or center text within a cell using these buttons. Select the cell(s) you want to align and click the appropriate alignment button on the toolbar.

The toolbar also has a button that will center a label over a range of cells, for example centering a title over a report. To center data over a range of cells, select the cell you want to center and the columns you want to center it over and click the Center over Cells button (shown at right).

excel center and merge icon graphic

Format Alignment command

You can also change the alignment of data within cells using the Alignment section of the Format Cells dialog. This dialog box also has options to change the orientation of text (i.e. sideways or vertical) and a box to wrap text within a cell.

Changing Numeric Formatting

To change the format of a number, choose the Cells command from the Format menu. In the Format Cells dialog box, Excel displays different tabs for various formatting types. To change numeric formats, click the Number tab. Select the category you want and then the actual format. For example, to display numbers as currency with two decimal places, select the Currency category, enter 2 for the number of decimal places, and select the appropriate currency symbol. Or to display a number as a percentage, choose the Percentage category and select the number of decimals you want to display.

excel format cells number formatting graphic

Placing borders around cells

The toolbar has a button for placing borders around cells. You can also use the Border section of the Format Cells dialog box, which provides more options. Select the cells you want a border on and choose the desired format from either the toolbar or the Format Cells dialog box.

excel borders icon graphic

Shading cells

To apply a specific pattern or color to a range of cells, use the Patterns section of the Format Cells dialog box. The sample area in the Patterns dialog box displays what the selected colors and patterns will look like. You can also apply a solid color using the Fill Color tool on the Formatting toolbar.

excel fill color icon graphic

Changing column width with the Format menu

To change column width using the Format menu, select the column or columns you wish to change and choose Column then Width. In the Column Width dialog box, type a number for the width of the column. The number represents the number of characters that can fit in the cell. The default column width is 10, which means a column is wide enough for ten, Helvetica 10-point characters. Choose Best Fit to automatically widen a column to accommodate the widest label, or click the Hide button to hide the column completely. Hiding columns is useful when you have data that you do not want to print.

* Changing row height is similar to changing column width. Select the row(s) you wish to change and choose Row then Height from the Format menu.

Changing column widths by dragging column borders

You can change column widths by dragging column borders with the mouse. Move the mouse pointer to the right hand border of the column you wish to change. The mouse pointer will change shape to a left and right pointing arrow as seen below.

excel column width graphic

Click and drag the mouse to adjust the column width. Note that when you are adjusting the width in this way, a numeric width indicator appears in the upper left part of the formula bar.

Formulas and Functions

Formulas and functions that perform calculations are the true power of spreadsheets.


To build a formula, first select the cell in which you want the results to appear. In Excel, all formulas start with the = sign. After the = sign, type the cells you want to add or subtract along with the mathematical operation you wish to perform. For example, to add the January sales in the worksheet below, the formula would be =B3+B4+B5. If you want to subtract February Widget Sales from January Widget sales, the formula would be =B3-C3.

excel example table graphic

Building many formulas can quickly become tedious. Fortunately, the Copy command described earlier also works with formulas.

Copying Formulas

The easiest way to copy a formula is with the Fill Handle in the lower right corner of the cell. Create your initial formula and then position the mouse on the Fill Handle. When the mouse changes shape to a cross-hair, press and drag over the adjacent cells you want to copy the formula to.

SUM( ) function

The SUM( ) function is probably the most common function in Excel. It adds a range of numbers. To build a SUM( ) function, begin by typing the = sign; all functions begin with the = sign. Next type the word SUM followed by an open parenthesis. You must now tell Excel which cells to sum. Using the mouse, click and drag over the range of cells you wish to add. A dotted outline will appear around the cells and the cell range will be displayed in the formula bar. When you have the correct cells selected, release the mouse button, type a closing parenthesis and press the <Enter> key.

If you do not want to use the mouse, type in the references of the cells you want to sum. For example, to add cells B3 through B5, type =SUM(B3:B5). Excel interprets B3:B5 as the range of cells from B3 to B5.

AutoSum button

In Excel, the standard toolbar has a button that simplifies adding a column or row of numbers. The AutoSum button, which resembles the Greek letter Sigma (shown at right), automatically creates a SUM( ) function. When you click the AutoSum button Excel creates a sum function for the column of numbers directly above or the row of numbers to the left. Excel pastes the SUM( ) function and the range to sum into the formula bar. If the range is not correct, simply select the proper range with your mouse on the worksheet. When you have the correct range entered, press the <Enter> key to complete the function.

excel autosum icon graphic

Using the Insert Function Button

The Insert Function Button is located by the Formula Bar.
Click the Insert funtion button in to activate the Insert Function dialog window.

excel insert function icon graphic
excel insert function dialog box graphic

First, choose the Function Category you are interested in from the select a category drop down menu.

excel insert function category selection dialog box graphic

Then select the function you want in that category. When you have selected the proper function click OK.

In the Function Arguements dialog box you specify the cells the function will operate on, which are called its arguments. Select the cells with the mouse and click OK. Notice the creation of the function in the formula bar.

excel insert function arguements dialog box graphic

Adjusting Page Setup settings

Before you actually print a worksheet, you should provide Excel information about margins, headers, footers, and page orientation. You change these settings using the Page Setup option on the File menu.

The Page Setup dialog box, shown below, has controls for margins, page orientation, headers and footers and whether gridlines and row and column heading should be printed.

excel insert page setup dialog box graphic

To change page margins

To change your margins, click the Margins tab, and enter the measurement for your margin, in inches, in the appropriate text box.

To change page orientation

If you want to change the orientation of the page from portrait (vertical) to landscape (horizontal) click the appropriate button in the Page Orientation section of the Page tab.

To change the header or footer

A header is text that prints at the top of each page. A footer is text that prints at the bottom of each page. Headers and footers often include the name of the file being printed or an alternative title, the date, page number, or additional descriptive information. To change the header or footer, click on the Header /Footer tab in the Page Setup dialog box. The current header and footer will appear at the top and bottom of the dialog box respectively. Click the Custom Header or Custom Footer button to change the existing header or footer.

The header and footer are divided into three sections (left, center and right). Press <Tab> or <Shift Tab> to move from section of the header or footer to another.

excel page setup header and footer dialog box graphic


Print preview

Before you actually print, it¹s a good idea to preview your output on the screen.Choose Print Preview on the File menu to preview your output on screen. Excel¹s Print Preview screen displays how the document will print on the page, but it is difficult to actually read the text. Notice that the mouse pointer takes the shape of a magnifying glass. You can enlarge the printed image by clicking the Zoom button or by using the magnifying glass. Simply click the magnifying glass on a part of the page you want to enlarge.

excel print preview icon graphic

The Print Preview screen also has several buttons at the top of the screen for making adjustments. For example, the Setup button opens the Page Setup dialog box and the Margins button lets you change page margin and column widths to fit more information on one page.

If you are satisfied with how the output appears in the Print Preview screen, the Print button lets you send your output directly to the printer.

Sending your workbook to the printer

Choosing the Print option on the File menu or clicking the Print button on the toolbar opens a dialog box that lets you change print settings and specify the number of copies to print. The Print dialog box appears below.

excel print icon graphic
excel print dialog box graphic

Within the Print dialog box, you can select what you want to print, how many copies and which pages. For example, if you only want to print the selected cells, or the entire worksheet you can choose those options.

Getting Help

In the Help System, any topic that has additional information is underlined. To read the information about an underlined topic, click on the topic. The Help System automatically switches to information about the selected topic.

excel help dialog box graphic

To expand to the full Help window, click the Show icon.      excel show help icon graphic

The Contents Tab

The Contents Tab is a listing of ³books² containing one or more Help topics and even some subbooks. You can open any of these books by double-clicking on it to get information about a topic.

The Answer Wizard Tab

Using the Answer Wizard is similar to using the Office Assistant. You can type in your question or the term you¹d like help on, click Search and a list of topics will be displayed. Information on the topic will appear in the right-hand window.

The Index Tab

The Index is an alphabetical listing of key words found in the Help topics. You can either type a word in the first text box or select a topic from the scrolling list displayed below. When you have selected a topic click on the Search button. A list of related topics is displayed in the third text box. Select the topic of your choice and information about that topic will appear in the right-hand window.

  UTOPIA icon graphic

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