What Is Excel? Formulas, Functions, and More

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Microsoft Excel is a software that you can use to organize data for your work and everyday life. Learn about formulas, functions, and more that you can apply when using Excel.

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Microsoft Excel can be an incredibly powerful tool to learn for your career, with benefits for everyone from data analysts, to social media marketers. It has capabilities for the everyday user to create charts, graphs, and more to organize and visualize data. 

In this article, you’ll learn what Excel is and does, formulas and functions to know, and some resources to help you get started.

What is Excel?

Excel is part of Microsoft’s 365 suite of software, alongside Word, PowerPoint, Teams, Outlook, and more. Microsoft Excel is a spreadsheet program that allows users to organize, format, and calculate data in a spreadsheet. Excel users can create pivot tables and graphs to help them compute and visualize complex data sets. 

Excel vs. Google Sheets: What’s the difference?

Excel and Google Sheets offer similar capabilities and features. The main difference is that Google Sheets offers a free version where several users can edit the doc at the same time, which makes it convenient for real-time collaboration. When you share your Google Sheets link with others, they can then edit the file.


Documents you can create in Excel

There’s no shortage of things you can do with an Excel spreadsheet. Here are just a few common documents you can create:

  • Balance sheet

  • Budgets

  • Calendar

  • Data report

  • Forms

  • Income statement

  • Invoice

  • Mailing list

  • Planning document

  • Time sheet

  • To-do list

All of these documents can be applied to your business or personal life. Excel is a versatile tool that can help you stay organized and calculate important information. 

How to use Excel

When using Excel, you’ll want to be sure to know the basics of a spreadsheet program. Once you’re familiar with its interface and features, you can add data to the cells or create a document by formatting the cells to your liking. Then, you can learn formulas and functions to calculate sums of money, for example, or the number of products needed for a launch.

Basics of Excel

When you’re starting out with Excel, here are a few commands you’ll want to know.

  • How to create a new spreadsheet

  • How to format column or row text and titles

  • How to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers in two or more cells

  • How to add or delete columns, rows, and pages (within the same spreadsheet)

  • How to sort your data

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can start to learn the different Excel formulas to help you compute data.

Excel formulas

There are many formulas available in Excel that you can use to work with data. Each formula in Excel begins with an equal sign. Before you create a formula, you’ll need to write an equal sign (=) in the cell where you want the formula’s result to appear.

These are some of the basic formulas to keep in mind.

  • Add: To add the values of two or more cells, use the plus (+) sign.

    • Example: =A4+D5

  • Subtract: To subtract the values of two or more cells, use the minus (-) sign.

    • Example: =A4-D5

  • Multiply: To multiply the values of two or more cells, use the asterisk (*). 

    • Example: =A4*D5

  • Divide: To divide the values of two or more cells, use the forward slash (/). 

    • Example: =A4/D5

You can use parentheses to create a large formula that combines these actions. Example: =((A4+C4)/(D5-C5)*3).

Excel functions

On Excel, you can use “functions” to automate tasks you normally use in a formula. Instead of using the plus sign to add a range of cells, you can use the SUM function. Let’s go through a few popular functions:

  • SUM: The SUM function adds up a range of cells. To input the function, use parentheses to indicate the range of cells. If you are summing up the numbers in cell A1 through A17, your formula would be: =SUM(A1:A17).

  • AVERAGE: Similar to the SUM function, the AVERAGE function calculates the mean of the values of a range of cells. For example: =AVERAGE (A1:A17).

  • IF: With the IF function, you can ask Excel to return values based on a logical test. The syntax looks like: IF(logical_test, value_if_true, [value_if_false]). For example: =IF(A1>B1,”Over Budget”,”OK”).  

  • VLOOKUP: The VLOOKUP function allows you to search for anything in your spreadsheet’s columns or rows. The syntax looks like: VLOOKUP(lookup value, table array, column number, Approximate match (TRUE) or Exact match (FALSE)). For example: =VLOOKUP([@Engineer],tbl_Engineers,7,TRUE).  

  • COUNTIF: The COUNTIF function is another useful one that returns the number of cells that meet certain criteria. The syntax looks like: COUNTIF(range, criteria). For example: =COUNTIF(A1:A17,”San Francisco”).

Tutorials to get started

We’ve put together some tutorials for Google Sheets, all of which are applicable to Microsoft Excel. Here’s a list so you can build your skills in the most common actions:

Excel guided projects

In your journey to using Excel, you may want to learn specific skills that will help you on the job while working with data or creating a budget. Check out these short, one or two-hour guided projects to get started.

Who needs to know Excel?

Excel is applicable to nearly every industry, from finance to project management to marketing, and beyond. Food service managers can use it to track invoices. Social media associates can use it to consolidate multiple MailChimp mailing lists. 

It’s most pertinent to those in careers that work daily with data, such as data analysts, marketing managers, accountants, and business owners. But teachers, non-profit professionals, and social workers may also find Excel useful for their everyday work to organize information and create charts or graphs. 

Excel for data and business

If you’re embarking on a career in data or business analytics, you may be interested in IBM’s Excel Basics for Data Analysis and Johns Hopkins University’s Business Analytics with Excel: Elementary to Advanced. Both require less than 24 hours to complete.


Learn Excel today

Coursera offers several options for learning how to use Excel. If you’re learning Microsoft Excel for a job or even for personal use, consider taking Microsoft’s course Work Smarter with Microsoft Excel, which is part of their Microsoft 365 Fundamentals Specialization.

If you’re specifically interested in learning Excel for business, enroll in Macquarie University’s highly-rated course Excel Skills for Business Specialization. With both courses, you can learn at your own pace and build your skills on your computer—anytime, anywhere.

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