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Co-op vs. Internship: What is the Difference?

Written by Shefali Sundram

Updated on: 03 Jan 2024

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Employers prefer hiring students for entry-level jobs with relevant work experience. You can meet the experience through different experiential learning such as Co-operative Education (co-ops) and Internships.

However, both have different requirements to be met. So, co-op vs. Internship,

What is a co-op?

What is an internship?

What’s the difference between co-op and internship?

Which one is right for you?

The main difference between co-ops and internships is that co-ops give students more responsibility than internships; they span longer and are typically paid. On the other hand, internships may have less workload, last for a shorter period, and can be paid or unpaid.

What is a co-op?

In a co-op, students gain work experience by working full-time for an entire semester and attending classes the next semester. Co-ops require students to work multiple terms for the same employer during their course. Cooperative Education is typically a paid position.

Students also earn credits for the semesters they engage in co-ops. The number of academic credits granted differs amongst programs.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’s report: Understanding Cooperative Education (2020), the requirements of co-op programs differ when it comes to the minimum number of hours put in.

One co-op program reported that students must meet a minimum of 20 hours per week in a semester. Another co-op program required students to work full-time for half a semester.  

What is an Internship?

An internship is a temporary work experience that allows students or recent graduates to gain practical, hands-on experience in a particular field.

Internships can be paid or unpaid, and they can last for a few weeks to several months. Internships can be a great way to learn about different industries, develop new skills, and network with professionals.

As per a report by the National Survey of College Internships (2021), the average duration of an internship is 18.3 weeks. Internships can be full-time and part-time. Colleges can grant credits for internships and prescribe the conditions to satisfy them. 

Differences between co-op and internship

Co-op and internship can be compared based on their length or duration, pay, commitment, duties, and benefits.

FeatureCo-opInternship
LengthMultiple semesters or termsOne semester or summer
PayTypically paidMay or may not be paid
CommitmentTypically requires students to commit to working for the same company for multiple termsDoes not typically require such a commitment
DutiesOften give students more responsibility than internshipsOften less responsibility than co-ops
BenefitsOften offer tuition assistance, housing assistance, and networking opportunitiesMay or may not offer these benefits
Comparison table of Co-ops vs. internships

Similarities between co-ops and internships

Co-ops vs. internships share three important similarities. Both co-op and internship programs help the students with relevant work experience in their field, chances of getting a better salary in their full-time job, and a better professional network.

Edge over students with no experience

Employers prefer students with work experience over those without experience. Both programs provide extensive on-the-job training to students.

This is supported by Zippia’s 20+ Compelling Internship Statistics[2023]: Data, Pay, and Trends which states that 70% of all interns receive a job offer from the company they interned at. 

Higher salary for an entry-level job

According to the National Survey of College Internships (NSCI) 2021 Report, Students who have previous work experience have a 6% higher wage when they start their full-time job. 

It allows students to negotiate pay because they have developed a skill set for a job profile before even entering the job market.

Better professional network 

Both of these opportunities help you broaden your network and build professional relationships. In Internships, you can make contacts at different organizations.

Whereas in co-ops, you can build a long-lasting relationship with employees at one organization.

Overall, what works for one student won’t work for another. Our advice would be to consider your circumstances accordingly and pick an Internship or co-op!

What are the types of co-op?

There are mainly 3 different types of co-ops: Full-time, Part-time, and One-semester.

Alternating semester or full-time co-op program

The full-time or alternating semester program is the most popular co-op program. It typically starts after freshman year. In a full-time co-op, you attend classes for one semester at your university, and the next semester is spent as on-the-job training at an organization.

The semesters alternate in this way throughout the program. Gradually, a 4-year course will extend to 5 years because of this. Students, therefore, often co-op during the summer to shorten the time it takes to finish the course.

Parallel part-time co-op program

Unlike the full-time or alternating semester program, the parallel part-time co-op program allows students to attend classes and work part-time simultaneously. Students who take up this program work up to 20 hours a week.

The parallel part-time program for co-ops is not as popular as the alternating semester program. However, it is a suitable option for those students who want to complete their course on time.

The one-semester co-op program:

The one-semester co-op program is ideal for students who can only commit one summer to work full-time. Despite being shorter, it offers substantive work experience and the possibility to network in your sector.

Co-op vs. Internship: Which is right for you?

Here are some key factors you must consider if you’re to choose one from a co-op or an internship.

  • Duration: If you are looking for a long-term, paid experience that will give you a lot of responsibility, then a co-op may be a good option for you. If you are looking for a shorter, part-time experience that may or may not be paid, an internship may be a better choice.
  • Your major: Some majors are more conducive to co-ops than others. For example, engineering and business students often benefit from co-ops because they can gain hands-on experience in their field.
  • Your career goals: If you know what you want to do after graduation, a co-op can help you gain experience in that field.
  • Your financial situation: If you need to earn money while in school, a paid co-op may be better than an unpaid internship.

When to consider a co-op?

Students who’ve decided on their career path should consider a co-op. You learn in-depth and accumulate immense experience in the field. It requires a full-time commitment and gets completed in one semester.

Since co-ops require students to work multiple terms with the same employer, it creates a long-lasting relationship. They can eventually get absorbed into the company.

While internships may be unpaid, co-ops are paid positions only.

When to consider an internship?

Students should consider taking an internship if they want more flexibility. It is also recommended if you want to explore different work areas to figure out what you want. It allows you to intern with several employees over short periods.

This ensures experiences from different organizations.

Internships also offer either part-time/full-time and paid/unpaid. You have many more options to pick from. Unlike co-ops, you can also finish your course on time!

Internships and co-ops can be valuable preparation for your future career, regardless of which you choose.

Frequently asked questions:

Co-op vs internship: Which is more competitive?

Co-ops are perceived to be less competitive than internships. If a student takes up a co-op, the duration of their course will increase. For example, a 4-year course will extend to 5 years if a student opts for a co-op.

To ensure the course duration doesn’t get extended, a large number of students pick up internship opportunities. So, naturally, more students apply for internships, and it is more competitive than co-ops.

But, there is a way around reducing the delay in your graduation by a couple of months. You can take a couple of classes online during your co-op semesters when you’re working full-time and earn credits.,

Does an internship count as employment?

The definition of internship being counted as employment may differ amongst organizations. The Fair Labor Standards

Act considers the following factors to determine if an intern is an employee: 

-If the employer and intern both acknowledge that it will be an unpaid internship, then the intern won’t be considered an employee. 
-If the employer promises compensation for the internship, the intern will be considered an employee. 

Can international students participate in a co-op?

Yes, international students can participate in a Co-op because their F1 Student visa allows them to work as students. They are also allowed to intern with a permit under the same visa.

Coordinating with college advisors to figure out the number of work hours per week is advised. This will help students meet the eligibility criteria accordingly and not violate any terms.

Where can I get information about co-ops and internships?

Since co-op programs vary between colleges, it’s best to get in touch with the academic advisors of your college. 
They will help you identify the best co-op program for you and how you’ll be able to manage it, along with school work.

Co-ops in every degree require you to meet specific demands. So it’s best to check out the requirements for each co-op program before enrolling.

Whereas for Internships, you can find out about opportunities through your network or by checking out openings posted online!
Check out this blog on the 10 Best Websites to find an Internship to make your internship search easier!

What are the benefits of having a mentor at an internship or co-op?

Under a mentor, you perfect existing skills and develop new ones. You also get the opportunity to make new connections in your organization and outside.

Apart from this, mentors pass down insights from their own experiences learned over the years.

In line with data from National Survey of College Internships 2021 Report, students critically rated the support from their mentors as 4.2 out of 5. 

This shows that the right support is needed for the holistic development of the students. 

What is the difference between a co-op and a regular program?

In a co-op program, you work entirely for one semester and attend classes the next semester. This process continues throughout your course, which means a 4-year course will get extended to 5 years.

In a regular program, students attend classes regularly every semester. Students gain work experience through internships and other experiential learning during summer breaks or spring breaks.

Written by

Shefali Sundram

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