The Difference Between an Internship and a Co-Op

The Value of Experiential Education

Employee working with a college intern in an office setting.
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Internships and cooperative education positions, also known as co-ops, can help college students gain experience and get a leg up on their employment competitors. Entering any job market can be particularly tough, but taking part in one of these programs can help to better ensure their success once they get their diploma.

Key Takeaways

  • Internships typically last one summer or one semester, while co-ops last more than one semester
  • Co-ops are generally paid, while internships might not be
  • Internship or co-op experience can help you get a job after graduation

The Difference Between Internships and Co-Ops

Internships are usually for one semester or over the summer and can be paid or unpaid depending on the employer. Often students will do more than one internship throughout their college career so that they can try out a couple of different fields or positions and compare them to see which one they like best.

Generally, co-ops are paid and last for more than one semester. Students might take classes in the fall and then work for the company during the spring semester. This rotation can sometimes go on for more than one year.


An internship should allow a student to gain gain relevant work experience connected to their studies or desired career. Internships can help students by giving them the opportunity to learn new skills and develop their careers. Internships help employers because they get to develop talent and potentially bring one or more of the interns on as full-time employees.

Whether an internship is paid or unpaid, it should offer:

  • Opportunities for the student to learn and grow in their career or studies
  • Feedback for the student on their performance
  • An introduction to the company's culture and work
  • The opportunity to make connections in the field they're interested in pursuing

Cooperative Education Experience

Cooperative education experiences or co-ops are paid, and require students to alternate between full-time work and full-time academic study for at least two semesters. This style of learning can allow students to take on increasing levels of responsibility at an organization or company while they are still in school.

In some cases, students are offered a full-time job with the company or organization they worked at after graduating.

What Employers Look For

You may think that one of the first things an employer looks for is a high GPA. Although a high GPA may be very important for some jobs such as those in the fields of financial services or science, many surveys of employers show that relevant work experience is what they seek most in their job candidates.

There are many ways to get this relevant experience. Internships, co-ops, research projects, and service-learning opportunities are some of the most popular. Many companies use their internship or co-op programs as a training ground for their next group of new hires. Not only do these companies get students who have relevant experience, but they also get new employees who are already familiar with the company who will need less training once they’re hired to come on board.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Benefits of a Co-Op?

A co-op allows students to learn and develop their work skills while being paid and receiving academic credit for their work experience.

What Does Co-Op Mean in College?

Co-op stands for "cooperative education experience," It's a way for students to combine their usual studies with practical work experience. Students will typically be paid for their work and receive academic credit for their work experience.

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  1. UMBC. "What Is an Internship?"

  2. Georgia Tech. "What is Cooperative Education?"

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