Co-Op vs. Internship: What’s the Difference?

What's the difference between an internship and co-op?

Everyone’s familiar with internships, right?  They’re pretty straightforward, typically available for college students (traditionally rising juniors or seniors) and give a person an inside look at a company.  Gone are the days of the interns serving as the company “go-for”, getting coffee all summer, and picking up the boss’ dry-cleaning.  Today, internships are much more.  As an intern, a person may have the opportunity to work as part of a team, providing value to the overall organization as they’re included in the creative process.  Some interns may even be mentored by executives and have the opportunity to present to a group of their peers or senior-level individuals on the outcomes of their special projects. 

But, what’s the difference between an internship and a co-op opportunity?  Why should job seekers consider both?  I get this question a lot, so I thought I would share with you some of the key differentials between the two.  Each provides a unique perspective – if you have the chance to do both, go for it!

Internships

  • Usually a one-time work (10-12 week) assignment, often in the summer
  • Typically doesn’t interfere with college classes due to timing, but less training is given because of this
  • Can be full- or part-time, paid or unpaid, depending on the employer and the career field
  • Undergraduate students (rising Junior/Senior) are eligible in most cases.  It’s rare to find internships available at larger companies for freshmen and graduating seniors
  • You don’t have to miss a semester or two to complete an internship
  • You’ll have an edge over students who don’t have experiential education gained through an internship
  • Internships are usually limited to one area of responsibility (marketing, human resources, IT, etc.)
  • Average GPA sought is 3.0, with 3.5 in some cases

Co-Ops

  • Co-ops are a joint venture between the university, a selected employer, and you
  • Traditionally at least three work terms alternated with school terms, resulting in a 5-year degree program (it’s going to take longer to graduate, but you’ll have some good experience)
  • Co-Ops are full-time, paid positions
  • More training is offered through a Co-Op
  • Some Co-Ops are rotational, offering opportunities across functions
  • Graduate students are eligible in most cases for Co-Ops
  • Students frequently start at higher salaries and higher levels of responsibility than interns

NOTE: Not all employers use these terms separately.  Some may see an internship or co-op as interchangeable language.  Make sure you ask what program they’re referring to when you talk to recruiters!

At the end of the day, the result you’re seeking is to land a full-time with the employer of choice.  Through your internship and/or co-op, you’ll have a leg up in learning about the company, understanding the corporate culture, processes, and procedures and may even have some great mentors to help guide you to your success. 

Did I miss something?  Have something to add?  Please leave a comment below!  I welcome your feedback.  You can find all my contact information here.  As always, thanks for reading!

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

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30 thoughts on “Co-Op vs. Internship: What’s the Difference?

  1. Kirk, well said! I also get that question quite often and wish I could have had this article to share! For Aflac, we accept students earlier in their college career for co-ops (sophomore level as opposed to junior level for internships).

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  2. Great post Kirk. I think one of the biggest insights people need to take away from this, is the importance of getting some experience and building a network that’s relevant to their career and goals. Internships and co-op opportunities are a great starting point!

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  3. Hey Kirk, I found your article and I finally got to understand the difference between a co-op and an intern. Personally, I thought of myself as an intern, and then after reading your article I realised I’m actually a co-op. Quite funny isn’t?

    So, my question is: In the eyes of an employer, which one do you think looks “better”? Co-ops or internships?

    Thanks in advance for your reply

    Regards

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    1. Hi Jerry,

      Good question! Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a “one-size fits all” answer. It will really depend on the employer and their thought process. I think that rather than pitting the two against each other (co-op vs. internship), think about what you learned during your experience. Did you lead a project? Were you responsible for a collaborative group of team members? Did the experience result in X number of sales, increase in participation, etc.? Think about the experience, quantify the results, and make sure you’re being as concise and succinct as possible about this on your resume and when you’re speaking with employers. That’s what will make you stand out – not whether you completed an internship or co-op. In most people’s book, experience is experience!

      Hope that helps! Thanks for the comment & reading my blog.

      Kirk

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      1. Kirk,

        This was an excellent article to point out. I have not heard of a co-op until now. Like Jerry, my “internship” would be more qualified as a co-op. To follow up with your comment about experience. If you are unsure about how your involvement on a project specifically impacted the company, would it be best to explain what you did?

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  4. Great information, Kirk. I still have a couple questions for you relating to the suject – co-ops vs internships. Can one or both also be used for a grade in lue of taking a course? And, do you see many colleges substituting a course when a student does a co-op or a internship? If this is true, how many work hours equal a credit hour?

    Thanks, Nick

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    1. Some schools do offer course credit for internships and co-ops. It varies by institution, so I’d recommend that you check with your career services office. They’ll know.

      Typically, it’s a 3-hr course credit. Your employer will have to sign off stating that you worked for them (sometimes course credit means the internship is unpaid). I haven’t seen more than that.

      Hope that helps!

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  5. Hi Kirk,

    Great article! I am a current co-op student, and for my work report, I’m comparing and contrasting different models of experiential learning. Your article is quite helpful, so thank you!

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  6. Hi Kirk,
    I have a question about co-op program, that if I attend this program for one somester, can I take some course credits at the same time?

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    1. Hi Neal,

      I’m sure it’s possible. Just keep in mind that most co-ops are full-time jobs. Your course credits would most likely need to be gained online or via night/weekend classes. Your employer might work with you too. Never hurts to ask. Thanks for the question!

      Kirk

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  7. Kirk Baumann,

    I have two options in my hand, one is culinary management regular program with internship and the other is culinary management co-op program, both programs are exactly same except one is having internship and the other is having co-op. Which will better for my career. Please suggest me.

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  8. Hi Kirk,

    i was enrolled in coop program and i had consecutive 16 months coop experience.i am going back to school for a semester and then i have 4 months off again.But university coop coordinator is not allowing me to do coop for 4 months again. they said you already completed the limit etc.. You think any employer will hire me for that term.i have course sequencing with me also which shows that i will be back to school after 4 months off.

    Thanks

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  9. With respect to the terms being interchangeable, note as well that in Canada many schools use the term Internship to reflect a 12-16 month consecutive placement under the Co-op model you’ve described above. That many people in Canada also use the term Internship to describe the type of experience you’ve listed above, there can be an additional level of confusion with terminology.

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  10. Kirk, thanks for the article, just to clarify one point. Enroling in a co-op program does not mean a 4 yr degree will take 5 years to complete. Many institutions offer co-op with a flexable model that allows students options of completing their degree within 4 years with co-op experience.

    Larry Iles
    Co-op Coordinator
    Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC, Canada

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  11. Some co-op programs alternate between work and school. That is one semester of work and the next of school. Would I be stepping on toes to take an internship in a off semester of work with a different company that is a non-competitor?

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    1. Hi Austin,

      Thanks for your question. It’s a good one! Personally, I don’t see an issue with that. After all, the whole point of internships is to get a variety of experience before you start in a full-time position after college. That way, you’re prepared!

      Hope that helps. Best of luck to you.

      Kirk

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    1. Brenda,

      Possibly. It really depends on the company and position. Typically, only very specialized roles provide sponsorship. I’d encourage you to have this discussion with your employer or potential employer.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Kirk

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    1. Hi Sima,

      Good question. Traditionally speaking, no. Most internships and co-ops are designed for current students (rising juniors and seniors) so they’re ready to hire as soon as they graduate. That doesn’t mean there aren’t companies out there hiring graduates for this type of role…I just don’t know of any that come to mind. Thanks for your question!

      Kirk

      Like

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