Finding a Job

What Is the Difference Between a Co-Op and an Internship?

February 22, 2021

Cooperative education, also commonly known as co-ops, and internship programs can be rewarding experiences for high school and college students looking to apply their knowledge and skills and gain experience in their chosen career path. These experiences might lead to a job offer or help you stand out as a better candidate when you apply to jobs after graduation.

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are different opportunities. In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about the differences between a co-op and an internship along with a section of frequently asked questions.

Co-op vs. internship

The primary difference between a co-op and an internship is the time invested in each program. Internships are brief work experience programs that last for about one semester and most are completed over the summer. Many college students participate in several internships throughout their time in school to gain experience in different positions. Co-ops usually last for a longer duration with your responsibilities increasing as your education progresses.

Related: How to Find Your Passion

When to consider cooperative education

You may want to consider cooperative education when you are interested in working for the same company over an extended period throughout your time in school. A co-op position will require you to work full time, and you will usually stay with the same company the entire time you are in school.

The time it takes for you to complete your degree may be longer than it would take for a traditional student not taking part in a co-op program as these programs require you to balance your coursework with your co-op work. Students participating in a co-op program usually take five years to complete a four-year degree.

Co-op programs can be offered with two different types of schedules: alternating and parallel. Alternating schedules require you to work for one semester and attend classes during the next semester. Parallel schedules allow you to work and attend classes part-time during the same semester.

When using a parallel schedule, students usually work between 15 and 25 hours per week. As you progress in your education, the responsibilities you have in your co-op program will likely increase as well.

Related: How to Get a Job After College

When to consider an internship

You may want to consider an internship when you want a shorter work experience program within one position. Internships usually only last for the period of one semester, between 10 and 12 weeks, although some internship programs may last longer.

Many internships are offered during the summer so you don't have to stop attending classes to work. An internship can be full-time or part-time work depending on the needs of the company. Internships can also be both paid or unpaid, which the company also decides.

The responsibilities you will be given during an internship program can vary but often include several entry-level tasks. Regardless of the level of responsibility you are given in an internship program, you will likely spend a good amount of your time in the program shadowing senior-level professionals who can teach you new things and help you develop the skills most important to their role.

Because internships are usually shorter than a co-op program, you may participate in several internship programs during your time in school. This can allow you to experience working for different companies in different positions, and help you determine the type of work you like and want to pursue when you graduate.

Most colleges and universities strongly encourage students to take part in at least one internship program while they are in school, and some degree programs may require you to complete an internship before you can graduate.

Read more: Definitive Guide to Internships

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of a co-op or internship?

Co-ops and internships offer several benefits.

Both programs will give you the opportunity to earn relevant work experience within your chosen career and can lead to more career opportunities upon graduation.

They also allow you to try different positions and fields to help you decide which career opportunities you enjoy and what type of job to pursue after you graduate.

Both opportunities will also give you the opportunity to build and expand your professional network.

What are some examples of co-ops and internships?

Co-op and internship job opportunities exist within several fields and positions. A few industries in which co-ops and internships are most popular include:

  • Accounting
  • Business
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Law and courts
  • Government
  • Hospitality
  • Information technology
  • Health and medicine
  • Marketing and public relations
  • Corrections and criminal justice
  • Management and consulting
  • Writing and publishing

You can ask your school for more information about the specific internship and co-op experiences they might have to offer.

Can international students participate in a co-op?

Yes, international students can participate in either a co-op or an internship program because an F-1 student visa will allow them to work in the U.S. while they are a student.

International students should work with their school advisors to properly plan and prepare for the eligibility requirements they will need to meet in order to participate in these programs.

Is it better to do a co-op with one company or multiple internships with several companies?

The opportunity that is best for you depends on the individual factors you consider to be most important.

Some factors to consider that can help you choose which program is best for you include whether you prefer a full-time or part-time work experience, the opportunities your school has available for your course of study, and the type of position and responsibilities you want to gain from your experience.

Where can I find more information about co-ops or internship programs?

Co-op and internship programs can vary by school, so you should reach out to your school's academic advisor or career counselor if you are interested in participating in either program.

They can help you identify which opportunities are available for your specific degree program and get information about how each program will balance with your coursework expectations.


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