How to Learn Excel: A U.S. News Guide


Learning how to use Excel can be valuable to your career. Excel, or spreadsheets in general, offers an easy and popular platform for data analysis. Number crunchers use this program to find answers, tease out trends and keep track of ever-sprawling amounts of data.

hand point on data report show on screen

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Excel is a cornerstone of Microsoft Office, a collection of downloadable apps that starts at $69.99 per year. If you’re a student, you can pay $149.99 upfront for an account that doesn’t expire. If you’re just starting out, you can try it for free for one month. There’s also a free web-based version of Microsoft Office, but it doesn’t include some of the more powerful features, like automated data cleaning or additional plugins.

Spreadsheet programs are ideal for sorting data, creating illustrations like pie charts and line graphs, and keeping track of information. An executive assistant, for instance, might color-code a supervisor’s schedule. Designers might use Excel to keep track of all of their projects. A business analyst might use it to crunch millions of numbers.

Excel is similar to other editing programs, like Microsoft Word. It has a toolbar called the ribbon at the top of the screen, with buttons for sorting, styling, searching and even doing math. Each Excel file is called a workbook, and each workbook contains multiple worksheets, which you can flip through via tabs at the bottom of the screen.

The Home section of the ribbon lets you italicize, boldface or center text and select other formatting options you’ve probably used before. Spreadsheets also feature “conditional formatting,” which means you can instruct cells to automatically appear differently depending on what’s in them.

For example, say you have a spreadsheet listing the number of views individual pages on your website received over the past month. You might create a conditional formatting rule saying that if a cell has a value of more than 1,000, that cell should be green. This can help you quickly identify pages with more than 1,000 views. Conditional formatting can make it easy to find the data you need or just keep your eyes from getting tired as you look at several rows of data.

The Data tab will help you organize and arrange your content. You can Sort, which means put your rows in a certain order, or Filter, which means hide rows you don’t want to see. The Formulas tab helps you do math, which is a popular Excel feature. You can write your own formulas, which is an intermediate skill, or use basic ones, like add and multiply.

There are some free programs that can handle spreadsheets and work similarly to Excel, including Google Sheets, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice.

Excel Training and Online Courses to Get Started

  • Take a tour of Excel, Microsoft, free
  • Learning Excel Online, LinkedIn Learning, free
  • Excel Essential Training, LinkedIn Learning, $39.99
  • How to Use a Spreadsheet, Samantha Sunne, free
  • Getting Started with Excel, Goodwill Community Foundation, free
  • Excel Help & Learning, Microsoft, free
  • Excel ribbon: quick guide for beginners, Ablebits, free

If you want to find trends and answer questions in a spreadsheet, then sorting, filtering and formatting are probably all you need. But if you want to learn the contours of Excel, that’s just the beginning.

Writing formulas and visualizing are on another skill level. These take some time to learn, but they pay huge dividends. For instance, would you like to know your company’s total sales – but only from the office in Chicago? Or which of your company’s products is the highest-selling item, by month? Learning to write functions and make data visualizations takes some time upfront but saves a lot of time down the road.

Journalist Kristin Hussey says she has used Excel for freelance jobs with outlets like The New York Times. “It’s an easy way to check dates I may have forgotten, and especially to pull together a more complete picture than I might have if I were working with disparate notes and interviews,” she says.

Intermediate Level Excel Training and Courses

  • Excel Magic, NICAR-LEARN, $40 per year if you’re not a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.
  • Finding Stories in Spreadsheets e-book, Paul Bradshaw, suggested price of $19.99
  • Doing Journalism with Data: First Steps, Skills and Tools; European Journalism Centre, free
  • How to Spot Visualization Lies, FlowingData, free
  • Excel Formulas, Goodwill Community Foundation, free
  • Nesting Functions in Excel, Excel Formulas and Functions for Dummies, free

You can do a lot – maybe even most – of your analysis with beginner and intermediate skills. But if you want to keep learning Excel, the sky’s the limit.

Some advanced Excel tools start to toe the line between spreadsheets and code. Visual Basic for Applications, for instance, is a programming language that works inside of Excel. You can use VBA to automate tasks, make an interactive form, coordinate changes with other users and other actions.

You don’t need to write code to use many of Excel’s built-in features. Macros, for instance, record an action and then repeat it, which can save you a lot of time and effort. You can also add plugins, like Power Query, which lets you connect your workbook to other data sources.

“Excel is invaluable for data work, no matter what level,” says Girish Gupta, founder of the startup Data Drum. “I’ve used Excel to wrangle data in physics, investigative journalism, my startups – everything.”

Advanced Level Excel Training and Courses

  • Microsoft Excel – Advanced, Go Skills, $299
  • Excel: Advanced Formulas and Functions, LinkedIn Learning, $44.99
  • Excel Pivot Table Basics, Udemy, free
  • Power Query 101, Microsoft, free
  • Excel: Working Together with Power Query and Power Pivot, LinkedIn Learning, $44.99
  • Financial Modeling for Beginners, Corporate Finance Institute, free
  • Scraping Data from Website to Excel, Alen Cooper, free

If you really want to show you know your stuff, take an exam for an official Excel certification from Microsoft. This certification assures employers you know what you’re doing and can help job seekers negotiate a higher salary, according to Microsoft. Job search sites like Indeed allow users to search for jobs that require Excel certification. These jobs are often in administration, sales and finance.

Microsoft offers a range of tests, starting with the Core program and moving up to Expert. You must pass the MO-200 test to become an Excel Associate, and MO-201 is needed to earn an Excel Expert certification. These exams are notoriously tough, and they cost $100 per attempt, so be sure to check out some of the study resources below before registering.

  • How to Pass an Excel Test, Study.com, free
  • Microsoft Excel Certification: Practice & Study Guide, Study.com, free
  • Microsoft Excel Certification Test – Free Practice & More, iPREP, $19.95
  • Excel 2019: From beginner to intermediate (MOS cert MO-200), Udemy, free
  • 4 Steps for Successful Microsoft Excel Test Prep, Applied Educational Systems, free
  • Cert Prep: Excel Associate – Microsoft Office Specialist for Office 2019 and Office 365, LinkedIn Learning, $44.99
  • MOS Study Guide for Microsoft Excel Exam MO-200 book, Joan Lambert, $24.99
  • How to prepare for MO-200: Microsoft Excel (Excel and Excel 2019) (MO-200), TestPrepTraining, free



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