The Difference Between an Internship & a Co-Op

The Value of Experiential Education

Mature woman showing intern graphics on screen
••• Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Entering today’s job market can be particularly tough. We repeatedly hear from new alumni who are having problems getting a job. Although we all know that the current economy is mostly to blame for these problems, there are things that college students can do to better ensure their success once they get their diploma.

What do employers look for in a candidate who is applying for a specific job? 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, 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.

Although many of my articles focus specifically on internships or both internships and co-ops, this article’s focus is on their differences and how they impact students.

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, Oftentimes 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 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.


According to Wikipedia, an internship "is a system of on-the-job training for white-collar and professional careers. Internships for professional careers are similar to apprenticeships for trade and vocational jobs. Although interns are typically college or university students, they can also be high school students or post-graduate adults. On occasion, they are middle school or even elementary students.”

“Generally, the internship works as an exchange of services for experience between the student and his or her employer. Students exchange their cheap or free labor to gain experience in a particular field. They can also use an internship to determine if they have an interest in a particular career, create a network of contacts, or gain school credit. Some interns also find permanent, paid employment with the companies in which they interned. Thus, employers also benefit as experienced interns need little or no training when they begin full-time regular employment.”


“Cooperative education is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience. A cooperative education experience, commonly known as a "co-op", provides academic credit for structured job experience. Cooperative education is taking on new importance in helping young people to make the school-to-work transition, service learning, and experiential learning initiatives.”

In addition to relevant work experience and the increased chances of getting a job offer,