difference between co op internship

What’s the Difference Between a Co-op and an Internship?

Most students are told that getting career-related experience in college is the secret sauce to landing a job after they graduate. If nobody has told you that yet, allow us to do you the honors: Seek out job shadowing opportunities, enroll in a work-study program, and find internships that are related to your career. Seriously, your future job-seeking-self will thank you for it!

Another way to gain valuable experience in college? Cooperative education, or co-ops. Co-ops are college programs that provide students with an opportunity to earn academic credit while applying the skills they learned in the classroom to a real-world business setting. 

So, what is the difference between a co-op and an internship? Strap in. Here’s what you need to know.

Co-op vs. Internship

Co-ops and internships share a few common traits. Both are great ways to gain valuable work experience and (potentially) earn academic credit while working towards a degree. Each opportunity gives students the chance to apply the lessons they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-world setting.

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The biggest difference between a co-op and an internship is their duration. Students who participate in co-op internships typically alternate semesters of academic study with longer periods of paid, full-time work. Internships, on the other hand, can be short in duration (like externships) and are commonly unpaid. 

Related: Externships vs. Internships – What’s the Difference?

Another important difference is their underlying goal. Internships are often short-term work experiences that allow students to explore careers, whereas co-ops span multiple semesters and give students a more in-depth work experience. 

When to Consider a Co-op

Which should you strive for: a co-op or an internship? The answer depends on your academic and career goals. Here are a few reasons why you may want to consider a co-op:

  • You’re in a competitive field. Unlike internships, co-ops allow students to take a deep dive into their careers and really build valuable skills that impress future employers. This can give you a major edge over your peers in a tight job market or a competitive industry.
  • You’ve chosen a career path and a major. Since co-ops can be a big investment of your time, you definitely wanna have a major declared and, ideally, a career path figured out. That way, you can reap the maximum benefits of participating in a co-op program.
  • You need an income. Although unpaid internships are becoming less common, they’re still out there. If you want a guaranteed paycheck, a co-op is guaranteed to help you earn some extra dough while you build your resume.

When to Consider an Internship

Before you can figure out how to get an internship, you first need to decide whether it’s the right option for you. Here are a few reasons why choosing an internship could be the best way to go.

  • You want to explore career options. Still weighing your career options? No biggie! You can use internships to get a taste of different careers. For example, are you a math major? You can scope out internships for math majors and take different careers for a test drive.
  • You want to graduate quickly. Since co-ops involve taking entire semesters off to gain work experience, they can push back your graduation date. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, sticking with summer internships may be a better option.
  • You’re an upperclassman. College juniors and seniors generally have a better chance at getting internships compared to underclassmen due to having more experience. If you already have an impressive resume, take advantage by applying for paid internships with cool perks. (Psst…Check out our post on how to write a cover letter for an internship to increase your chances!)

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Launching Your Career with the Right Work Experience

When it comes to co-ops and internships, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are fantastic ways to maximize your career opportunities after you graduate. 

But don’t get too hung up on the terminology. Many employers use “co-op” and “internship” interchangeably or incorrectly, which can lead to missed opportunities if you judge them by name alone. Be sure to look at the structure of each opportunity and ask lots of questions. Good luck!


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