Co-op vs. Internship: What’s the Difference & Which Should You Choose?

Choosing between a co-op or internship but not sure what these terms mean? Compare the differences of a co-op vs internship in this post!

High school and college are exciting times. It’s time that students start thinking about what they want to do with their lives. And it’s time to start getting some real work experience that’s relevant to their futures.

But what’s the best way to do that?

What’s the difference between a co-op vs internship?

And what is a co-op, anyway?

There is a big difference between the two, and which one is best for you can be a difficult question to answer.

Read on to learn everything you need to know to compare a co-op vs an internship!

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The Difference Between a Co-op and Internship

So what is the difference between an internship and a co-op? Both are generally found through a college for school credit and even money. The biggest differences are the number of hours you’ll work and if you can earn money from them. 

Number of Hours

To start with, a student internship and a co-op have different work-level expectations. A co-op will almost serve as a temporary full-time job. An internship is usually solely part-time. 

Because of this, students who accept co-ops will generally either take a semester off or complete their co-op when school is not in session. They’ll generally last between three to twelve months. 

The good news is that these positions are paid. And if you accept a co-op, some universities may let you qualify for extra financial aid. Some schools will waive tuition fees for students in a co-op for example.

These are a great way to get an idea of what working in your field is like. Is the position you’ve been aiming for really a good fit for you? A co-op gives you a chance to get some real experience before you decide.

On the other hand, an internship tends to be less strenuous on your schedule. These positions can be paid or unpaid and usually require about the same amount of time as a part-time job. 

Because they take up less time, students will often participate in them during the school year. This way, they don’t need to skip any time in the classroom. But other students prefer to partake in these programs during summer breaks instead of adding to their workload during a normal semester.

Some students will use paid internships to supplement paying for their school fees. Some degree programs may even require students to participate in one. 

These are a great way to get some general insight into your field. You’ll get to talk to all sorts of people who already have experience and decide if the path you’re on is the right one for you.

Related Read: Internships 101: Everything You Should Know About Internship Programs


The other main difference is the payment involved in each program. Both of them are considered valuable work experience in a student’s chosen field, but not all of them pay the same.

In general, a co-op is considered a temporary full-time position. For this reason, they generally pay a decent wage while a student is working at one. They can get a real sense of what it’s like to work a full-time job in their field before they commit fully to it. 

This is also valuable work experience to put on a resume. This is especially true if the company the student did the co-op with is hiring when they graduate. It lets the company know that they’ve worked for them before, which can give students an advantage in a competitive job market.

An internship, on the other hand, is a little different. These are generally part-time positions that students can participate in during a semester.

Even though it’s considered valuable work experience, not all of these positions pay a wage. Some positions will simply provide you with school credit as compensation for your work. Others will pay some money, but because it’s part-time work it’s not usually as much as a co-op will pay.

That isn’t to say that the experience isn’t valuable because it is. Students in these positions will receive a good insight into the field that they want to work in. They’ll get to meet real people who work in that field and ask important questions about it.

It’s a good way to start getting experience in a specific field. A student will get an idea of who is responsible for different aspects of that workplace. And just like with co-ops, some companies are more likely to hire those who have interned with them before.

Related Read: Externship vs Internship: What’s the Difference and How to Choose?

Co-op or Internship

So is a co-op or internship better for you?

This is going to depend on the field and the degree that you’re pursuing. Some colleges will list them as requirements for internships and co-ops. But it’s also going to depend on your financial and educational situation.

Your Field

Before you decide between a co-op and an internship, you have to consider your own field and the degree you want to pursue. Neither one of these programs will be of much use to you if it doesn’t give you experience in your field.

Not every field is going to have a co-op available in your area. While co-ops exist for nearly every field, they are most common in the engineering and technology fields. These are great opportunities for anyone who wants to go into software or technology development.

And keep in mind that it’s possible to find co-ops for other fields too. They’re simply rarer as these fields tend to prefer internships.

The other side of this coin is that co-ops usually take up a lot of a person’s time. The idea is that a student can get real work experience at a job they might actually have in their field later. But they might need to take some time out of their classroom studies to complete their co-op.

Internships, on the other hand, are much easier to find in just about any field you can imagine. The real question you need to ask yourself is if you’re ok with an unpaid internship, or if you absolutely need the money from a paid one. 

And some fields are also more likely to have paid internships than others. You should do some research on internships in your field before you start looking for one. This will give you an idea of whether or not your field has paid internship opportunities.

Some students will use this income to supplement paying for their education. So it’s easier for them if they can find an internship that will pay.

Related Read: Why are Internships Important? 10 Benefits of Internships to Understand

Financial Situation

The other thing to consider is your current financial situation. Can you afford to work an unpaid internship and go to school at the same time? Will you receive any financial aid from the school if you receive an internship?

These are important questions to ask yourself. And you should do as much research as possible to answer these questions before you apply for these positions. Remember that you’re still having to pay for enrollment in school even when you’re working an internship or co-op.

In many cases, you can get some amount of financial aid for getting a co-op through your school. This will usually be in the form of waived tuition fees. You may still have to pay for room and board if you’re staying on campus during your co-op, however.

And remember, if you get a co-op position, then you could spend as long as a year away from the classroom. Not every student is comfortable with this, so you may consider getting one after your courseload is complete.

Internships will generally take less time out of your schedule, so many students attend classes and internships at the same time. Many students also work part-time on top of going to classes and unpaid internships. In these cases, it’s sometimes easier for students to take a lighter course load or even wait until summer breaks to participate in internships.

In other cases, students can earn some income from paid internships. These students don’t work part-time jobs at the same time as often.

Unfortunately, most schools won’t offer any kind of tuition fee waiver for internships. The exception to this rule may be internships that are run directly by the school itself and not by an outside organization. 

Ready to Decide Between Internships and Co-ops?

We hope this article has helped you understand the differences between an internship and a co-op, as well as which one might be right for your situation.

If you have any feedback or questions about co-ops vs internships, let us know in the comment area below.

And, for further advice as you transition from university into the professional world, check out our college articles and career articles on the Goodwall blog.

Thanks for reading!

Related Read: How to Find & Get an Internship Through Goodwall in 5 Simple Steps

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Goodwall Team
Written By Goodwall Team
This article was written by the Goodwall team or by a contributor for publication on Goodwall. Goodwall is dedicated to helping students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals reach their full potential. We'll share thought-provoking and supportive articles on career advice, self-improvement, navigating the college landscape, climate action, social impact, and more. On the business side, we'll talk about SMB subjects related to community, diversity, talent acquisition, case studies, and enterprise.

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