Co-Op vs. Internship: What Is the Difference?

Co-Op vs. Internship: What Is the Difference?

By Doug Wintemute

Published on May 14, 2021

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For active students, co-ops and internships provide a convenient and effective way to acquire relevant professional experience. According to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, 56% of employers prefer job candidates with experience from these specific programs.

On this page, we examine the differences between a co-op vs. an internship, what benefits these programs offer, and how students can use this information to make a sound decision.

For a deeper dive on how to find an internship, visit our Ultimate Guide to Internships.

What Is a Co-Op?

Co-ops provide students with a fully immersive professional experience. These programs usually require participants to work full time throughout an entire semester or even longer. By participating in a co-op, learners can take on a great deal of responsibility and gain substantial practical experience.

By participating in a co-op, learners can take on a great deal of responsibility and gain substantial practical experience.

Due to the intensity of co-ops, students often pause their studies and focus their efforts entirely on the work at hand. Co-ops typically run for 3-12 months, with participants often committing to multiple terms with an employer, either consecutively or spread out across several years. As a result, co-ops may extend the overall degree length, turning a four-year program into five years.

While co-ops offer many benefits for students, they may not be as available as internships. Since they do not usually offer credit, schools do not often integrate them into their program curricula. However, most co-ops provide financial compensation, so they can help students pay for their programs and other expenses.

A co-op provides unrivaled experience to students as they work full time in a relevant field and position. These experiences can prove valuable for aspiring professionals in many ways, helping them build their professional network and strengthen their resumes.

What Is an Internship?

Much like co-ops, internships provide students with access to professional experience prior to graduation. These programs last approximately 3-4 months, with students typically working part time.

Internships may be paid or unpaid, and many degrees build these practical experiences into their curricula, usually offering credit for internship completion. These shorter experiences give participants the chance to briefly experience a career or field before fully committing to it.

Reasons for pursuing internships vary depending on each student's goals. Internships can provide excellent opportunities for learners to apply their training, network with industry professionals, get a foot in the door of a potential employer, and improve their resumes prior to graduation. Check out our internship guide for more information.

Co-Op vs. Internship: Which Is Right for You?

Choosing between a co-op vs. an internship requires that students think about their short- and long-term goals. The following sections look at differences between the two programs and considerations students should weigh before settling on one or the other.

When to Consider a Co-Op

Time and length requirements are the biggest difference in a co-op vs. an internship, so students should consider how their choices might affect their timelines. For example, learners who can justify extending their degree by a year might find greater value in a co-op.

Many co-op participants can turn these experiences into a more permanent relationship with their employer.

Similarly, co-ops often require full-time commitments for at least one semester. Learners should think about whether or not they can fit a 40-hour work week into their schedules. Students with extracurricular commitments may struggle to make time for their co-op. Many programs allow students to take a break from school during this time.

For employers, co-ops provide ample space and opportunity to evaluate a student's work. Many co-op participants can turn these experiences into a more permanent relationship with their employer after graduation.

Students with multiple co-op options need to think about their priorities. They might, for example, consider pay, time commitment, responsibilities, and relevance to their degree.

When to Consider an Internship

Internships offer a great deal of flexibility for students. Shorter time frames allow learners to take on multiple internships throughout their degree, and part-time schedules let them work while continuing their studies. When considering a co-op vs. an internship, learners who wish to graduate within four years typically lean toward internships.

However, attending class, completing regular coursework, and working part time can prove challenging for some. Finances should also play a large role in these decisions, as many internships do not pay.

When considering a co-op vs. an internship, learners who wish to graduate within four years typically lean toward internships.

For students who wish to pursue multiple opportunities, shorter internships can be very beneficial. Learners can try out different employers, industries, or even positions and get a feel for what they like and dislike about each.

Though employers may not get the same familiarity with interns as they do co-op students, they can still see how well interns respond to various assignments and fit in with the organization. Interns who best showcase their strengths and potential can greatly improve their chances of turning the temporary opportunity into full-time employment after graduation.

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