Excel Functions to Know for College

excel functions and lessons

College students today are using technology more than ever before. Many high schools do a good job preparing students to use computers in college by requiring students to study topics on the internet and write papers in Microsoft Word. However, there is one major shortcoming to most high schools’ approaches to preparing students to use technology in college (and ultimately, in the real world): they don’t teach students much about Excel. By learning some basic Excel skills you cans set yourself up to do well in your courses and eventually in any internships or jobs that come later. 

Who uses Excel in College?

While use will vary depending on your school and major, it’s safe to assume that most students will use Excel in some capacity while in college. Of course, any sort of quantitative majors, such as business, science, and engineering, will use Excel the most. For example, upper level Finance and Accounting students may use Excel every day. After graduation, these students will almost certainly use Excel every day for work.

How Much Excel Do I Need to Know for College?

The good news is that as a college student, nobody expects you to be an Excel master. But by learning Excel you can get a leg up on the competition and get your assignments done faster. Additionally, solid Excel skills may help you land an internship or a job after graduation as a growing number of employers are administering Excel tests as part of the interview process.

The following three Excel functions will give you a base understanding of what Excel can do and how functions work. This list is by no means exhaustive (there are hundreds of functions in Excel) but is intended to provide a quick example of arithmetic functions, logical functions, and lookups.

SUM Function

The SUM function in Excel is, as the name implies, a function to find the sum of several numbers. Every function starts with an equals sign to let Excel know you’re typing a function. SUM looks like this:

=SUM(number, [number], [number], ...)

The numbers inside the parenthesis are called arguments, and these are the numbers that SUM will add together. The arguments in the square brackets are optional; SUM requires at least one argument, but can accept up to 255 unique arguments.

The SUM function can accept several different types of arguments, including numbers (like 4), as well as cell references (like D5) which will provide whichever number is contained in that cell. You can even provide a range of cells, which is typed as two cell references separated by a colon. The range A1:A10 will provide all the numbers contained in cells from A1 to A10.

Learn more about the SUM function and some practical examples to give you a jump start to mastering more skills.

IF Function

The IF function in Excel takes a logical statement (one that evaluates to either true or false), and provides one value if true, and another value if false. This function helps you introduce logic and decision-making into your spreadsheets to make them more useful and adaptable to real-life scenarios. The IF function looks like this:

=IF(Logical statement, Value if true, Value if false)

The first argument (the logical statement) compares two values using one of the comparison operators: equals (=), does not equal (<>), greater than (>), less than (<), greater than or equal to (>=), and less than or equal to (<=). 

The function returns the second argument if the logical statement is true, and returns the third argument if the logical statement is false. You can learn more about Excel’s IF function here.

VLOOKUP Function

The third function we’ll talk about is used to look up values from rows of data in a table. VLOOKUP is a bit more advanced, but is very useful and may even help you impress your professor. 

The VLOOKUP function searches for a value that you know, and returns another value from the same row where it found the match. It looks like this:

=VLOOKUP(Value you know, Range of cells to search, How many columns to look to the right, [whether to use approximate matching])

The first argument is the value you tell VLOOKUP to search for. The second argument is the entire table of data that VLOOKUP can pull data from. When VLOOKUP finds your match value (the first argument), the third argument tells it how many cells to look to the right. The fourth argument is optional; it tells VLOOKUP whether to use approximate matching. If left blank it defaults to true, and we’re usually looking for an exact match, so normally we’ll say false or the last argument.

VLOOKUP excercise

In the example above, we have a table with employee ID, hire date, and name, where each row represents one employee. If we have an employee’s ID we can use VLOOKUP to find the corresponding hire date or name. Sharpen your skills and practice more VLOOKUP lessons.

Advice for students

In closing, the three functions described above are meant to give you a taste for what Excel can do. You don’t need to know all the functions to succeed in college, but a good understanding can certainly save you time and help you do well on your assignments.

In addition, having a knowledge of Excel can set you apart from other applicants as you prepare essays and apply for scholarships. A basic understanding of Excel now can help prepare you for introductory computer science, statistics, and logic courses, too. You can continue learning by visiting Excel Exercises or just playing around with Excel and experimenting with the different functionality. Happy learning, and good luck in college!

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