Excel Sorting: The Basics

In MS Excel, you often have a database of information that needs to be ordered in a certain way (whether it’s alphabetical, by date or whatever).

The first step to sorting data is to tell Excel what database it’s going to be sorting. To accomplish that, select a cell in the database.

If you’re sorting only one field, you can use the Sort Ascending and Sort Descending buttons. Just be sure the cell you selected in the first step is in the column of the field you need to sort.

Those quick sort buttons are located on the Standard toolbar in older versions of Excel.

For Excel 2007, you need to look on the Home ribbon for the Sort and Filter button. In the list that opens, you’ll find them at the top.

If you have more than one criterion (such as by a person’s name and date order), you’ll need to spend a few moments telling Excel which fields to sort and in which order to complete the sort.

Once again, things are different for Excel 2007, so you must split the instructions into two groups.

For those of you using the older versions of Excel, go to the Data menu, Sort choice.

When the Sort window opens, you’re given space to set three sorting criteria (in the order they should take precedence).

Select each sort criterion from the drop down lists and choose ascending or descending for the sort order.

If your data has a row of header labels, be sure to choose “Header row” at the bottom so that Excel doesn’t sort the column title in with the data.

The opposite situation where there are no column titles means you must choose “No header row” so that the first row of data is included in the sort.

When you have everything as you need it, click OK.

Now, we need to talk about Excel 2007.

To start a multi-level sort, you need to go back to the Home ribbon, Sort and Filter button and choose Custom Sort (the third choice in the list).

The Sort window for Excel 2007 looks like this:

At first glance, it appears you can only sort one field, but if you take a look at the button in the upper left hand corner, you’ll see that it says “Add Level.” I was able to put something like 62 sorting levels in the list, which I can’t even imagine having to use. But feel free to add as many levels as you need!

Once you have the correct number of levels for sorting, you’re ready to tell Excel what to sort and what precedence each data field should take. Excel works from the top down, so make sure you put your highest priority sort at the top.

Column – Sort By” allows you to choose which column of data to use.

Sort On” lets you choose what distinguishing element Excel should use for the sorting.

Order” lets you choose which direction you want the data sorted in.

Once the levels are set, you need to let Excel know if you have a header row above your data. If so, check “My data has headers” in the upper right hand corner to prevent the column label from being sorted with the data.

The Options button gives you access to a few more sorting details.

Case sensitive is pretty self-explanatory, but orientation will allow you to have Excel sort the data left to right. That’s definitely useful if you have the data set up in rows instead of columns.

Click OK to exit the Sort Options dialogue window.

Click OK when you’re ready to start the sort.


Now, your database is nice, neat and orderly. If only everything were that easy!

~ April