Microsoft Excel

9 minute read

6 Things You Should Absolutely Know How to Do in Excel

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

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When it comes to Excel, there isn’t much middle ground.

You have people who absolutely love it and will sing the praises of spreadsheets all day. And, then you have the people who absolutely detest it. They’d rather lock themselves in a phone booth full of mosquitos than have to go cross-eyed looking at all of those columns and rows.

Admittedly, I used to fall into that latter group. I’d open a new Excel workbook with the best of intentions. But, after 20 odd minutes of trying to get one stupid decimal point to appear properly in its cell, I’d throw my hands up once again and claim Excel just wasn’t for me.

Then, my life experienced a major plot twist: I married a total Excel whiz—someone who literally spends his entire workday creating complicated macros and some of the most impressive spreadsheets I’ve ever seen. And, he’s made it his personal mission to convert me to his tribe of Excel-lovers (honestly, I’m surprised it wasn’t in his wedding vows).

Since then? Well, he’s made some progress. I’ve been able to put my hatred aside and recognize that learning Excel can actually be an incredibly powerful tool for combing through information and finding exactly what you need—provided you know how to use it correctly.

It’s that last part that trips people up. But, fortunately, Excel isn’t nearly as complicated as you’re likely making it out to be.

In fact, there are plenty of helpful tricks and tools you can utilize—whether you’re a total newbie or an established expert. Here are six things you should absolutely know how to do in Excel (and, trust me, you’ll be glad you do!).

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1. Sort data

Typically, spreadsheets are useful for storing and sorting a whole bunch of information—think a contact list for 800 people that you want to invite to your company’s luncheon, for example.

Now, let’s say that you want to sort those people accordingly. Perhaps you want them listed in alphabetical order by last name. Or, maybe you want to group them together by city.

Excel makes it easy to comb through your entire data set and sort everything into a clean and easy to read spreadsheet.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Highlight the entire data set you want to sort (not just one column!) by either dragging your cursor across all of the cells or clicking the triangle in the upper left of your spreadsheet to select the entire thing.
  • Hit the “Data” tab.
  • Click the “Sort” button.
  • Select how you want to sort your data (in the example below, I sorted by city!).
  • Hit “OK.”

Then, your data will be sorted accordingly—in this case, alphabetical order by city.

sorting data in Excel

IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s important that you select the entire data set you want to sort, and not just one column. That way, your rows will stay intact—meaning, in this case, the correct address will stay with the appropriate person.

Had I just selected the first column, Excel would’ve sorted only that one column alphabetically, making the addresses a mismatched mess.

2. Remove duplicates

It’s inevitable: When you’re working with a large dataset, there are bound to be a few duplicates that sneak their way in.

Rather than getting bleary-eyed and frustrated by scrolling through that entire spreadsheet and looking for them yourself, Excel can do all of that legwork for you and remove duplicates with the click of a button.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Highlight the entire data set.
  • Hit the “Data” tab.
  • Click the “Remove Duplicates” button.
  • Select what columns you want Excel to find duplicates in.
  • Hit “OK.”

removing duplicates in Excel

IMPORTANT NOTE: Be careful that you choose enough qualifiers to weed out the true duplicates. For example, if I had just selected to remove duplicates in only Column A above (meaning Excel would’ve looked for duplicates of “Oprah”), I would’ve deleted one Oprah that indeed had the same address, but one that had a different last name and address altogether (a different Oprah entirely!)

The bottom line is, utilize enough information so that you’re removing rows that are true identical copies of each other—and don’t just share one similar value!

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3. Basic math functions

Stop reaching for that calculator—Excel can handle all sorts of math functions for you! All you need to do is enter a few simple formulas.

Think that sounds like it’s way beyond your Excel knowledge? Think again. Trust me, if I can figure this out, so you can you.

Here are the basic formulas you’ll want to know:

  • Addition: Type “=SUM” in a blank cell where you want the total to appear, click the cells you want to add together, and then hit “Enter.”
  • Subtraction: Type “=” in a blank cell where you want the difference to appear, click the cell you want to subtract from, type “-”, click the cell you want to subtract, and then hit enter.
  • Multiplication: Type “=” in a blank cell where you want the total to appear, click the cell for a number you want to multiply, type “*”, click the cell for the other number you want to multiply, and then hit enter.
  • Division: Type “=” in a blank cell where you want the remainder to appear, click the cell for the number you want to divide, type “/”, click the cell for the number you want to divide by, and then hit enter.

Listen, I know these are a little confusing to put down in words. But, give them a try for yourself and I’m positive you’ll quickly see that they aren’t complicated at all. Here’s a look at what the SUM function looks like in practice:

doing arithmetic in Excel

INSIDER TIP: If you want to drag the same mathematical formula across a row, you can! After entering the formula into one cell, click that cell where the total appeared, click the little green box that appears in the lower right-hand corner, and drag it across the rest of the row where you need that formula to be applied.

Voila—it’ll happen automatically! You’ll be able to crunch numbers in different columns, without needing to enter the formula again and again.

how to copy a formula in Excel

4. Freeze panes

There’s nothing worse than scrolling through a huge spreadsheet that requires you to continuously go back up to the top to see what your column headers are.

Fortunately, you can make your column headers and your row numbers stay right where they are—meaning you can always see them, no matter how far down the spreadsheet you go. You can do this by using Excel’s handy “freeze panes” feature.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Click on the row underneath your column headers.
  • Click on the “View” tab.
  • Click the “Freeze Panes” button.

freeze panes in Excel

Scroll down and across your spreadsheet, and you’ll see that the information you need is always right there within view!

5. Insert current date

Sick of glancing at your calendar or the bottom of your computer monitor in order to get today’s date and enter it in your spreadsheet?

Excel can do it for you—with just one easy keyboard shortcut. Here it is:

Ctrl + ;

Put your cursor in the cell where you want the date to appear, use that shortcut, and Excel will automatically fill in today’s date for you. Easy peasy!

automatically add date in Excel

IMPORTANT NOTE: Dates entered using that function are static, meaning they won’t change as your spreadsheet ages!

6. Make the same change across worksheets

When you’re working with multiple tabs, it’s a hassle to comb through them all and make the same change over and over again. Fortunately, you don’t have to!

You can select the appropriate sheets in your workbook where that change should appear. Make the change once, and it’ll be applied across all of the sheets you selected.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Hold the “Command” key on your keyboard (or “Control” if you’re using a PC).
  • Select the appropriate tabs of your workbook.
  • Make the necessary change to one cell.
  • Check to make sure it applied across all of your worksheets.

Want to see this in practice? For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume I got married to Aaron Rodgers (hey, a girl can dream!). As a result, I changed my last name from “Boogaard” to “Rodgers.” Since my name appears in numerous different tabs of this spreadsheet, I’d use this handy trick to only have to enter my new last name one time.

copy changes across Excel worksheets

And that's what you need to know how to do in Excel

I get it—Excel can feel a little intimidating. But, once you start playing around, you’ll begin to become more and more comfortable and quickly begin to realize just how much easier it can make things for you.

Get your start by mastering these six basic Excel tricks, and you’ll be on the path to becoming a total Excel whiz in no time!

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in creating online content for software clients in the training, careers, self-development, human resources, productivity, project management, and business ownership spaces. Her content has been published and/or syndicated by brands such as The New York Times, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Business Insider, TIME, Mashable, and LifeHacker. Beyond writing, she has had roles in marketing, public relations, and has worked as an employment advisor. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.. Find her on Linkedin here.