Excel for Dummies

This is a beginners guide to Excel spreadsheets

What is Excel?

Welcome to our free Excel for Dummies guide.  The Microsoft Excel program is a spreadsheet consisting of individual cells that can be used to build functions, formulas, tables, and graphs that easily organize and analyze large amounts of information and data.

Excel works like a database, organized into rows (represented by numbers) and columns (represented by letters) that contain information, formulas, and functions used to perform complex calculations.

The first version of Excel was released by Microsoft in 1985, and by the 1990’s was became one of the most widely used and important business tools in the world.

Today, Excel is still a ubiquitous program found on just about every personal and business computer on the planet.


Excel for Dummies


Launch free Excel crash course.  The best way to learn is by doing, which is why our FREE step by step tutorial on how to use Excel is the most efficient way to learn with your own spreadsheet.


Why do we use Excel?

Simply put, Excel is the easiest way to organize and manage financial information, which is why most businesses use it extensively.  If offers total flexibility and customization in the way it’s used.

Another reason we use Excel is that it’s so accessible.  With virtually zero training or experience, a user can open up a workbook, start inputting data and begin calculating and analyzing information.

Here are the top 5 reasons we use Excel are:

  1. To organize financial dataFinance & Accounting
  2. To organize contact information – Sales & Marketing
  3. To organize employee information – Human Resources (HR)
  4. To organize personal information
  5. To be a calculator


Excel tips


What are the most important functions?

There are hundreds of formulas and combinations of formulas that can be used in Excel spreadsheets, but since this is an Excel for Dummies guide, we have narrowed it down to the most important and most basic ones. We also cover all of these functions and more in our Free Excel Crash Course.

The most important functions include:

  • =SUM() – adds a series of cells together
  • =AVERAGE() – calculates the average of a series of cells
  • =IF() – checks if a condition is met and returns a value if YES and a value if NO
  • =MIN() – returns the minimum value in a series
  • =MAX() – returns the maximum value in a series
  • =LARGE() – returns the k-th largest value in a series
  • =SMALL() – returns the k-th smallest value in a series
  • =COUNT() – counts the number of cells in a range that contain numbers
  • =VLOOKUP() – looks for a value in the leftmost column of a table and returns in the same row from a column you specify

Here is a more detailed list of Excel formulas and functions.  We recommend familiarizing yourself with all of them to become a proficient user.


Excel guide


What are the most important shortcuts?

If you use Excel frequently it’s important to be able to work as quickly as possible.  Using Excel shortcuts is the best way to speed up your skills.  By avoiding the mouse you can save cut down on the time it takes to click through each step of a procedure.  Keyboard shortcuts, on the other hand, are much faster and allow the user to move around the spreadsheet much more efficiently.

The most important Excel shortcuts include:

  • F2 Edit active cell
  • F4 Toggle references
  • CTRL + 1 Format Cells
  • CTRL + C
  • CTRL + V
  • CTRL + R Fill right
  • CTRL + D Fill down
  • ALT + = Auto Sum
  • ALT, I, R Insert row
  • ALT, I, C Insert column


How can I get better at Excel?

In order to improve your Excel skills, you need to practice.  It’s not enough to simply read the functions and formulas in an article like this, you also have to watch and learn from the power users.  Many of the functions and formulas, sadly, are not intuitive or obvious, so you’ll need to go over them many times on your own before they become natural for you.

Check out our free spreadsheet formulas course to watch an Excel power user in action!

Excel charts

After you’ve taken the course, try recreating everything on your own from scratch, and see if you can remember all of the formulas and functions.


What jobs use Excel spreadsheets?

There are many jobs that used workbooks on a daily basis.  In fact, it’s hard to think of a job that doesn’t use this program.  Even though technology has changed the way we work in many careers, Excel has remained as one of the few tools that is so simple and powerful that it seems to remain no matter what other software comes out.

At CFI we specialize in finance and accounting roles, so in our universe of jobs, there are many different careers that use Excel.

Explore our interactive career map to learn more about finance jobs beyond our Excel for dummies guide.

Some of the most common finance jobs that use Excel are:

  • Investment banking
  • Equity research
  • Corporate banking
  • Private equity
  • Corporate development
  • Investor relations


What else do I need to know about Excel?

Hopefully, this Excel for Dummies guide has given you a good start.  Our free Excel crash course would be a great next step for you!

The best wy to learn is to open up a new workbook and try using all the formulas and functions we’ve given you in your own spreadsheet.

Once you’re comfortable with the material in this article, take a look at the free crash course below and you’ll be a power user in no time. You can also check out some intermediate level Excel tips and formulas.

If you prefer to learn by reading, there are plenty of Excel books that are highly regarded.  The Excel Bible by John Walkenback is an extremely comprehensive book that you may want to consider.



More Excel for Dummies guides

If you liked our guide to Excel for dummies we think you’ll love these helpful resources as well.  Since the key to becoming great at Excel is lots of practice, we highly recommend you explore these additional resources to expand your knowledge and move past the introductory level.  The return on investment of your time spend will be well worth it!

Most popular resources include: