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

If you’re considering attending a college or university in the United States, you’re probably familiar with the concept of an internship. Internships are a form of experiential learning in which students work within an organization while also attending classes in order to gain work experience and potentially earn credit toward graduation.

While an internship can be very beneficial, it is not the only effective method for gaining real-world experience through hands-on learning. Some American universities also offer co-ops for students, which are equally impactful yet structured very differently than internships.

Below, we explore the breadth of what each of these experiential learning options entails—including the key differences between the two—and offer advice that you can use to determine which is a better fit for your educational and career goals.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a form of on-the-job training that gives a student the opportunity to test out a possible career or position while still in school. These are popular amongst both graduate and undergraduate students and often provide the opportunity for them to begin developing the professional skills that they will need for any future job.

Though some internships are paid, many are not. Typically, students who participate in internships do so instead to gain experience and potentially earn academic credit toward their degree. Universities often have strict policies about the kinds of work that interns can perform if the student is seeking credit for their internship experience, as well.

Internships can vary substantially in length—lasting anywhere from six weeks to four months or longer—and take place during either the academic year or during summer or winter periods. If the internship takes place during the academic year, it is important to note that the time spent working does not replace time spent in class. Instead, the internship will need to be flexible enough that the student can still meet their academic obligations. For this reason, the majority of students choose to pursue their internships on a part-time basis.

During their time spent in an internship, students are able to explore a particular career, gain hands-on experience, and make valuable contacts that can potentially be leveraged in their future job search. Internships are also often seen as an effective way to bulk up your resumé before graduating and even, potentially, before participating in a co-op.

What is a Co-op?

A co-op (also known as cooperative education) is a form of experiential learning which combines classroom-based education with full- or part-time, paid employment in a position related to a student’s field of study. The goal of participating in a co-op is to have students gain deep, practical work experience where they can apply the lessons from their coursework in a real-world, business setting.

Typically, students participating in a co-op will take courses for one semester and then spend the following semester working and applying their skills hands-on. Some co-ops will be a single semester in length, but many will span multiple semesters—sometimes for the whole length of a student’s degree. In these cases, co-ops offer students a path to continuously develop their skills, build their work experience, and establish valuable connections with potential future employers.

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Which is Right for You?

“Both internships and co-ops can be extremely valuable for students,” says Charles Kilfoye, assistant vice president of employer engagement and career design at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies. “Ultimately, you should be looking for the opportunity that best allows you to apply your learning in a real-world setting while aligning with your career goals and fitting [into] your schedule.”

To help you determine which form of experiential education will be most suitable for your situation, consider the following:

  • Have you declared a major or field of study?
  • How much time are you willing to devote to a job while you’re in school?
  • Do you need an income?

If you’re still undecided about your area of study, an internship can allow you to explore different fields or positions and hone in on what sector of work most interests you. If you are already committed to a specific field, however, you will likely benefit more from a co-op program, as co-ops give you the opportunity to dive deeper into full-time work in your preferred role and gain a more solidified understanding of the industry as a whole.

Internships are great for undergraduates who can afford to earn credit hours instead of money for their work, because, though paid internships are sometimes available, they can be hard to come by. Those looking specifically for monetary compensation for their work should consider a co-op instead.

You should also think about how much time you are willing to set aside for work outside of the classroom. For example, if you think that you can successfully balance both classes and experiential learning, then an internship during the fall or spring semester could work for you. If you worry you might struggle juggling both classes and work at the same time, however, either a co-op or a summer internship might be a better fit. Finally, if you are currently working in a full-time position related to your field of study, it may be possible for that experience to fulfill certain degree requirements.

Where to Find Opportunities

Not sure where to find internship or co-op opportunities at your university? Most colleges have an office or department specifically designed to help students find, apply to, and get placed in internship and co-op experiences.

At Northeastern University, students have access to a number of valuable resources that they can use to find the perfect internship or co-op experience, including an extensive network of companies and organizations that partner with the university to offer students opportunities. The Office of Global Services is another resource specifically available for international students interested in participating in either an internship or co-op while attending the university. This team provides guidance on the forms, visas, and other application materials that students must complete for enrollment. 

Co-ops at Northeastern

At Northeastern University, we understand how important it is for students to gain real, hands-on experience in their field of study so that they can advance in their careers and reach their personal and professional goals. That’s why experiential learning forms a bedrock of our educational process and philosophy, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

“We’ve been at this longer than anyone else, allowing us to make co-ops a major focal point of the experience at Northeastern,” Kilfoye says. “Because of this history, more than 3,000 potential employer partners form our experiential network, allowing more than 10,000 Northeastern students to engage in a co-op or internship experience each year.”

Alongside offering extensive opportunities, Northeastern’s co-op program boasts positive results for the students who participate. As of 2019, 90 percent of Northeastern graduates who complete a co-op are employed on a full-time basis within their first nine months after graduation, and 50 percent of co-op students receive a job offer from their co-op employer specifically. 

In the classroom, in the workplace, and around the world, students at Northeastern complete rigorous coursework, apply their knowledge and skills to solve real challenges, and implement change in companies and organizations on every continent through co-ops and internships, service learning, and student research

Are you an international student interested in studying at Northeastern and participating in either a co-op or internship? Contact the Office of Global Services to speak with a member of the team who can answer your questions or explore co-op options available through Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies.

internship vs. co-op