Internship vs. Co-op: Know the Difference Between These Two Programs

In most career fields, a strong college GPA is only one aspect of nabbing an entry-level job. Employers are more likely to interview—and ultimately hire—job candidates with relevant work experience.

There are two main ways students can gain job experience while in college: through either internships or cooperative education programs, also known as co-ops. While both are similar programs with the same end goal, it’s important to know the difference between an internship and a co-op.

What is an internship?

Colleges and universities often strongly encourage students to complete an internship. Internships can be paid or unpaid, and they typically last the duration of one semester. Students are tasked with completing any outside coursework and personal commitments while logging the required number of internship hours.

Internship duties vary widely by company and field. You might be asked to complete entry-level tasks, for instance. While these might not always be particularly exciting, it’s important to remain open to the tasks presented in an effort to show your flexibility and willingness to expand your skill set.

[RELATED: Why You Should Pursue an Internship in College]

What is a co-op?

A variety of schools offer co-op programs. While participating in a co-op, students may stop taking classes in order to work full-time. Co-ops are usually paid, and often require students to work full-time for several months. Sometimes, a student’s co-op experience is divided into two-to-three scheduled work periods throughout the school year or throughout multiple years.  Co-ops allow students to gain a good deal of work experience prior to completion of their degree.

Is a co-op or internship right for you?

  • The benefits

    • Completing an internship or a co-op adds experience to students’ resumes, and can help them land a future job by providing a plethora of networking opportunities. What’s more, these programs can show you what you like and don’t like about a given career. You may begin a program in a field you thought you were interested in, only to realize that it’s not the right fit for you.  

  • The time and money investment

    • It’s key to examine your time in order to decide which program is best for you. Internships typically last the length of a semester, but there’s a chance they will be unpaid. Co-ops, however, can last a bit longer, may require you to stop taking classes, and are generally paid.

    • When considering whether to pursue an internship or co-op, you should review your financial needs. If the promise of a steady paycheck alleviates a lot of your stress when it comes to paying for college, you might want to choose a co-op. If money is not a major consideration and you’d rather finish your college career in a shorter time frame, an internship might be for you.

  • How each program will affect your university experience

    • Working as part of a co-op is a very different type of college experience compared to attending classes full-time or doing an internship part-time. During your co-op semesters, you’re likely to spend less time on campus with your classmates, professors, and friends. While some students get used to moving between their workplace and college, others might feel uncomfortable. It’s important to think about how you might feel having your time split like this, and whether or not you’d enjoy this kind of college experience.

[RELATED: How to Get Real-World Experience in Your College Major]

Both internships and co-ops offer a unique opportunity for you to expand your skill set, network with professionals in your field, and set yourself up for post-graduate success. It’s key to examine the pros and cons of each option, and to deduce which is the right fit for you and your ultimate career goals.

[RELATED: 4 Tactics for Landing Your Dream Job]  

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