HomeEducational StagesInternshipCo-op vs. Internship: Know the Differences

Co-op vs. Internship: Know the Differences


Many employers expect students to graduate from college with relevant work experience, which is where a co-op or internship can come into play. Though experts say those terms may be used interchangeably by some schools, students should know the differences when weighing co-op vs. internship opportunities.

“Schools, programs, employers call them different things,” says Michelle Clare, senior director of career education at the University of Cincinnati. “The important thing is not to get caught up in the language that they’re using to describe it, but looking at the nature of the experience. Is it structured, is it in alignment with the curriculum, does the university or institution support it?”

While the lines may blur, experts note that co-ops – with some exceptions – tend to be full-time employment over the course of a semester, whereas internships usually require fewer weekly hours. Whereas a student in a co-op may work up to 35 or 40 hours, internships often require less than half of that time.

At schools such as Cincinnati, students typically don’t take classes during the co-op period. Clare says this is so students can focus on the task at hand, and gain work experience without conflicting with their studies.

Prospective college students should know if their university or potential major requires students to complete a co-op or internship. Some schools don’t have structured co-op programs. Students who are interested in participating in a co-op should research school policies and programs before they commit to a university. Knowing the differences between the two can help students who have the option pick the choice that best supports their education and career goals.

How to Get the Most Out of an Internship or Co-op

Co-ops are typically paid positions and last anywhere from three to 12 months. Universities with required co-op programs usually expect students to complete at least two – sometimes three – such practical learning experiences, experts say. At Cincinnati, that number is even higher, with three to five co-ops required for some majors.

As a result, students are out of class and working for at least a full school year over the course of their college career. In some cases, this may extend a student’s time in school. For example, Clare notes that programs at Cincinnati with required co-ops are designed for five years.

Internship programs can offer more flexibility for students. Internships can be paid or unpaid, shorter in length and completed in the summer when students are out of school. Students who choose to do internships during the school year usually work part time so they can still take classes.

Ryan Healy, a graduating senior business major, completed two internships and a co-op during his time at Endicott College in Massachusetts. Healy feels that the internship experience was valuable for exploration, while the co-op helped to better prepare him to step into a career.

“I think internships are meant to figure out if you are in the right major and if you are in the right field. They are meant for the student to explore anything they might be interested in, in any industry that interests them. The co-op is meant for the student to explore a position that they might want to do for a living after school. The co-op should teach the student what it is like to work for a company full-time,” Healy wrote in an email.

Co-op or Internship: Which One Is Right for You?

Co-ops provide students with a more in-depth and extensive work experience, which can give students an edge over their peers, experts say.

Because students invest more time in co-ops, they can provide a significant contribution to an organization, which can include working on big projects – unlike interns, who only work 10 or 12 hours a week over the course of two or three days, says Robbin Beauchamp, director of cooperative education and career services at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

That doesn’t mean that internships lack value.

“Depending on the field that you’re working in, it is possible to get a sense of a certain aspect of the career field in a short amount of time,” says Larissa Fergeson, associate vice president for academic affairs at Longwood University in Virginia.

For instance, students can learn what type of work culture they prefer and if they’re in the right field through internships, she says.

Interns can explore careers and stay in the campus rhythm, community and culture, which can be more difficult if they leave school to work for a year, she says.

But co-ops can help families offset some college costs, since students are working full time and may have more money to contribute, experts say.

Depending on the institution, students may not be charged tuition while they’re participating in a co-op, though they’d have to pay for room and board if they decide to stay on campus. Students should verify how participating in a co-op will affect their student benefits, such as meal plans, housing or financial aid, since that may vary by institution.

Large corporations typically offer co-ops, but co-ops aren’t an option for everyone, says Laurie McIntosh, a field services director at the Society for Human Resource Management.

“A co-op might be limited based on the type of work they want to go in. You might not get that type of opportunity in all professions,” she says.

Co-ops are common in engineering and technology but options do exist in business, liberal arts and other career fields, experts say. Healy, who has an applied math minor to go along with his business major, says his experience gave him a shot of confidence.

“I am absolutely grateful for the experiences that I was able to have at Endicott. I learned so much from every experience that I had. I definitely feel better prepared to start my career. I used to be nervous about the future and was scared that I would not be ready. However, after completing my internships and co-op, I feel beyond prepared. I am excited to use what I learned from my experiences at my internships and co-op in my future career,” Healy says.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.
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