by Svetlana Cheusheva, updated on
Can Microsoft Excel formulas be easy to learn? Yep! This tutorial explains the very basics of Excel formulas for beginners, with detailed steps on how to write and use them. It also provides a number of advanced formula examples for experienced users. You will be amazed how simple creating formulas in Excel actually is.
If asked what Microsoft Excel is about, what would be your answer? Right, it's all about storing and crunching numbers. You can use Excel to calculate percentages and compound interest, count and sum cells based on specific criteria, find average, and even get a sample deviation of a given set of values. All this can be done by using Excel formulas.
In this tutorial, we are going to learn the basics of creating and using formulas in Excel. And because one of the most efficient ways to learn is through practice, we will also discuss a number of formulas examples to make things easier to understand. Here's a list of topics we are going to cover:
In MS Excel, formulas are equations that perform various calculations in your worksheets. Though Microsoft has introduced a handful of new functions over the years, the concept of Excel spreadsheet formulas is the same in all versions of Excel 2016, Excel 2013, Excel 2010, Excel 2007 and lower.
When you make a formula in Excel, you can use different elements to supply the source data to the formula and indicate what operators should be performed on those data. Depending on the formula type that you create, it can include any or all of the following parts:
=SUM(A1, A2, B5).
To refer to data in two or more contiguous cells, use a range reference like A1:A5. For example, to sum values in all cell between A1 and A5, inclusive, use this formula:
To tell Microsoft Excel what type of operation you want to perform in a formula, you use special symbols that are technically called operators. There exist 4 types of operators in Excel:
These operators are used to perform basic mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
|+ (plus sign)||Addition||
|- (minus sign)||Subtraction
Negation (reversing the sign)
|/ (forward slash)||Division||
|% (percent sign)||Percentage||
(returns 10% of the value in A2)
|^ (caret)||Exponential (power of)||
(raises the number in A2 to the power of 3)
For example, if you have an item price in cell A2 and VAT in cell B2, you can calculate the VAT amount by using the following percentage formula:
In Microsoft Excel formulas, comparison, or logical, operators are used to compare two values. The result of the comparison is always a logical value of TRUE or FALSE. The following logical operators are available in Excel:
|Comparison operator||Meaning||Formula example|
|<>||Not equal to||
|>=||Greater than or equal to||
|<=||Less than or equal to||
For example, formula =A1=B1 returns TRUE if cells A1 and B1 contain the same value (number, text or date), FALSE otherwise.
For more information and examples of using comparison operators in MS Excel formulas, please check out the following tutorial: Excel logical operators - equal to, not equal to, greater than, less than.
Text concatenation operator in Excel is the ampersand symbol (&). You can use it to join two or more text strings in a single string.
For example, if you have country codes in column A and telephone numbers in column B, you can use the following formula to get the telephone numbers combined with the country codes:
In the above formula, we concatenate a space " " in between to make the numbers better readable:
The same result can be achieved by using the CONCATENATE function, and the following tutorial explains all the details: How to combine text strings, cells and columns in Excel.
To supply ranges to MS Excel formulas and separate arguments in Excel functions, the following operators are used.
Colon (:) - it is a range operator that allows you to make one reference for multiple cells located between 2 cells that you specify.
For example, range A1:A00 includes 100 cells from A1 through A100. To find an average of those 100 cells, you use the following formula:
You can also refer to the entire column (A:A) or the entire row (1:1). For example, the following formula finds the total of all numbers in column A:
=SUM(A:A). Find more about whole-column and whole-row references.
Comma (,) - is used to separate arguments in Excel spreadsheet formulas. For example, the formula
=IF(A1>0, "good", "bad") reads as follows: if A1 is greater than zero, return "good", otherwise "bad".
Note. Comma is the default List Separator in North America and some other countries. In European countries, comma is reserved as the Decimal Symbol and the List Separator is usually set to semicolon (;). In this case, you need to separate a function's arguments with semicolons, e.g.
=IF(A1>0; "good"; "bad")
So, if you are trying to make a formula in your worksheet, but Excel does not accept it and throws up an "invalid formula" error, go to your Regional Settings (Control Panel > Region and Language > Additional Settings) and check what symbol is set as List Separator there. It is that symbol that you need to use to separate arguments in your Excel formulas.
Space - it is an intersection operator that lets you get the cell(s) common to the two references that you specify. For example, if you a list of items in column A and some related data in other columns, you can get a value at the
intersection of a given column and row by using a formula like this:
For a real-life formula example, see how you can do two-way lookup in Excel by using named ranges & space operator.
Formulas that you create in your Excel spreadsheets can be simple or complex:
Further on in this tutorial, you will find the detailed steps for making both types of Excel spreadsheet formulas.
As already mentioned, any Excel formula starts with the equal sign (=). So, whatever formula you are going to write, begin by typing = either in the destination cell or in the Excel formula bar. And now, let's have a closer look at how you can make different formulas in Excel.
Although simple Excel formulas perform just one calculation, they can do this in many different ways. You can supply the source data as constants, cell references, or defined names, and perform calculations by using mathematical operators or Excel functions. For detailed steps, please see the following resources:
When you have some experience with simple Excel formulas, you may want to perform several calculations within a single formula. And the following examples show how you can do this.
For a complex Excel formula to calculate correctly, certain operations must be performed before others. The default order of operations in Excel formulas is this:
For example, you can use the following formulas to calculate the total and commission:
And now, let's break down these formulas to see how Microsoft Excel calculates them:
To calculate the 10% commission, you need to multiply the total by 10%, so you enclose the previous calculation in brackets, and got the result you want.
Of course, nothing prevents you from multiplying the total already calculated in column E by 10%, in this case the formula would reduce to a simple calculation
=E2*10%. However, in large worksheets, it makes sense to write independently calculated formulas, so that removing a column with one formula wouldn't break the others.
In Microsoft Excel formulas, nesting one function within another means using one function as an argument of another function. In modern versions of Excel 2016, 2013, 2010 and 2010, you can use up to 64 nested functions. In older versions of Excel 2003 and lower, only up to 7 levels of functions are allowed.
Here is a very simple example of a nested Excel formula that includes the SUM function to find the total, and ROUND function to round that number to the nearest integer (0 decimal places):
Of all Excel functions, IF is nested more often than all others. As you probably know, the IF function is used to evaluate a specified condition and return one value when condition is met, and another value when the condition is not met. However, quote often you have to deal with situations where there are more than two possible outcomes. And if this case, you can write several IF functions and nest them into each other:
For the detailed explanation of nested IF's syntax and advanced formula examples, please check out the following tutorial: Using nested IF functions in Excel.
Array formulas in Excel are advanced aerobatics. A single Excel array formula can perform thousands of calculations and replace hundreds of usual formulas. Learning array formulas certainly requires some time and effort, but it's worth it.
Since this tutorial is purposed for beginners, I won't intimidate you by the definitions of array constants and complex multi-line formulas. I'll show just one very simple example of an Excel array formula that demonstrates what they are capable for.
Supposing you have 2 columns of numbers, column A and B. And you want to know how many times column B is greater than or equal to column A when a value in column B is greater than 0.
This task requires comparing two ranges and you can do this by using the following array formula:
=SUM((B2:B10>=A2:A10) * (B2:B10>0))
Note. To enter an Excel array formula correctly, you have to press Ctrl+Shift+Enter instead of conventional Enter stroke.
To learn more about Excel array formulas, please see the following tutorials:
Although Microsoft Excel has hundreds of built in functions, you still may find yourself faced with a challenge for which no predefined Excel function exists. In this case, you can create that function yourself... or have somebody create it for you :)
Such custom functions are called User Defined Functions (UDFs), and they are especially useful for advanced mathematic or engineering calculations. Like macros, user defined functions are written in VBA (Visual Basic for Applications). As an example, you can review and download custom functions created by our team to count and sum cells by color.
There exist 3 types of cell references in Excel: absolute ($A$1), relative (A1) and mixed ($A1 or A$1). All three of the above references refer to the same cell, and the dollar sign ($) is used only for one purpose - it tells Microsoft Excel whether to change or not to change cell references when the formula is moved or copied to other cells.
Absolute cell reference ($A$1) - the $ sign before the row and column coordinates makes a reference static, and lets you copy a formula without changing references.
Relative cell reference (A1) - a cell reference with no $ sign changes based on relative position of rows and columns in a spreadsheet.
Mixed cell reference - can be of 2 types:
The following image shows how different reference types work in practice.
For more information about Excel cell reference and more formula examples, please see Why use $ in Excel formulas.
Formulas in Excel are a powerful multi-faceted tool, and they can solve a great variety of tasks in your spreadsheets. Of course, learning various aspects of Microsoft Excel formulas and functions does take time, so you might feel there isn't enough time in the day to learn everything. Well, a good way to find more time is to save some time :)
Excel provides formulas for almost anything, and there exist tens or even hundreds of different functions in modern versions of Microsoft Excel. So, if you encounter a task for which you cannot work out a solution, most likely you are missing out on a formula that can do it for you. Before spending hours and hours on performing manual calculations, take a few minutes to review the following resources. It is a selection of the most popular MS Excel formulas with examples, grouped by categories.
Well, we seem to have finally got to the end. What was planned as a short Excel formula tutorial for beginners has nearly turned into a voluminous manual because there are so many different aspects of Excel formulas to cover. I am really thankful to everyone who has read this page to the end!
Table of contents