Microsoft Excel is an electronic spreadsheet used by moms to manage home budgets, teachers to keep track of students’ grades, and companies, from small to big, to track and project sales, generate reports, etc. Excel skills are valueable both in the workplace and at home.

But a lot people are intimated by Excel--grid, numbers, formulas and charts. Just think of Excel as a valuable tool to make your life easier. You control it--not the other way around. I think we can tame the beast with a simple 5-minute introduction to the bare bone basics of Excel. 

Think of an Excel spreadsheet as a paper ledger sheet. It consists of a grid made from columns and rows.


Columns are represented by letters of the alphabet; whereas rows are represented by numbers. A cell is each square in the grid where a column and row intersect. In the example below, the selected cell is B3 (column B, row 3).

Credit: self


Formulas calculate values in a specific order. The equal sign (=) tells Excel that the succeeding characters constitute a formula. Following the equal sign are the elements to be calculated.

= (equal sign): always start a calculation with (=)

+ (plus sign): addition

- (minus sign): substraction

*(asterisk): multiplication

/ (forward slash): division


The operation inside the parenthesis always takes precedence.

For example, the following formula produces 11 because Excel calculates multiplication before addition. The formula multiplies 2 by 3 and then adds 5 to produce 11.

In contrast, if you use parenthesis to change the syntax, Excel adds 5 and 2 together and then multiplies the result by 3 to produce 21.

Parting words

Practice the calculations in Excel. The first step is always the hardest to take. If this intro makes sense to you, congratulations! You already have a solid foundation to move forward in Excel. Take a class at a community college or computer training center or watch online tutorials. Good luck!