What is a Spreadsheet

A spreadsheet or worksheet is a file made of rows and columns that help sort data, arrange data easily, and calculate numerical data.

What makes a spreadsheet software program unique is its ability to calculate values using mathematical formulas and the data in cells.

A good example of how a spreadsheet may be utilized is creating an overview of your bank's balance.

Spreadsheet overview

Below is a basic example of what a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet looks like, as well as all the important features of a spreadsheet highlighted.

In the above example, this spreadsheet is listing three different checks, the date, their description, and the value of each check.

These values are then added together to get the total of $162.00 in cell D6.

That value is subtracted from the check balance to give an available $361.00 in cell D8.

Difference between a workbook, worksheet, and spreadsheet.

Because the terms spreadsheet, workbook, and worksheet are so similar, there can be a lot of confusion when trying to understand their differences.
When you open Microsoft Excel (a spreadsheet program), you're opening a workbook.

A workbook can contain one or more different worksheets that can be accessed through the tabs at the bottom of the worksheet your currently viewing.

What's often most confusing is that a worksheet is synonymous with a spreadsheet.

In other words, a spreadsheet and worksheet mean the same thing. However, most people only refer to the program as a spreadsheet program and the files it creates as spreadsheet files.

Examples of spreadsheet programs

Today, Microsoft Excel is the most popular and widely used spreadsheet program, but there are also many alternatives.

Below is a list of spreadsheet programs that can be used to create a spreadsheet.


Spreadsheets are ideal for financial data, such as your checking account information, budgets, transactions, billing, invoices, receipts, forecasts, and any payment system.


Form templates can be created to handle inventory, evaluations, performance reviews, quizzes, time sheets, patient information, and surveys.

School and Grades

Teachers can use spreadsheets to track students, calculate grades, and identify relevant data, such as high and low scores, missing tests, and students who are struggling.


Managing a list in a spreadsheet is a great example of data that does not contain numbers, but still can be used in a spreadsheet.

Great examples of spreadsheet lists include telephone, to-do, and grocery lists.


Spreadsheets can keep track of your favorite player stats or stats on the whole team. With the collected data, you can also find averages, high scores, and statistical data.

Spreadsheets can even be used to create tournament brackets.

What is an active worksheet?

An active worksheet is the worksheet that is currently open.

For example, in the Excel picture above, the sheet tabs at the bottom of the window show "Sheet1," "Sheet2," and "Sheet3," with Sheet1 being the active worksheet.

The active tab usually has a white background behind
the tab name.

How many worksheets open by default?

In Microsoft Excel and OpenOffice Calc by default there are three sheet tabs that open (Sheet1, Sheet2, and Sheet3). In Google Sheets it starts with one sheet (Sheet1).

What is the length limit of a worksheet sheet name?

Not to be confused with the file name, in Microsoft Excel there is a 31 character limit for each worksheet sheet name.

How are rows and columns labeled?

In all spreadsheet programs including Microsoft Excel, rows are labeled using numbers (e.g., 1 to 1,048,576).

All columns are labeled with letters from A to Z, then with two letters. For example, after the letter Z, the next column is AA, AB, AC, ..., AZ and then incrementing to BA, BB, BC, etc., to the last column XFD.

When working with a cell, you combine the column with the row. For example, the very first cell is in column A and on row 1, so the cell is labeled as A1.

Why wouldn't I just use a word processor?

While it may be true that some of the things mentioned above could be done in a word processor, spreadsheets have a huge advantage over word processors when it comes to numbers.

It would be impossible to calculate multiple numbers in a word processor and have the value of the calculation immediately appear.

Spreadsheets are also much more dynamic with the data and can hide, show, and sort information to make processing lots of information easier.

Download an example of a spreadsheet file
We've created a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that can be downloaded and opened in any spreadsheet program including Microsoft Excel.

This spreadsheet helps illustrate some of the capabilities of a spreadsheet, formulas, and functions used in a spreadsheet and allows you to experiment more with a spreadsheet.

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