Co-Op vs. Internship: What Is the Difference?

Co op students talking
February 18, 2024
6 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 2/18/24

To get into your top college choices, you’ll have to craft a competitive application, including diverse extracurriculars, such as a co-op or an internship. But which one is better? Read on to find out!

For high school students, co-op and internship programs can provide valuable opportunities to gain work experience and explore potential career paths. They can also help you build your network early so that you have more opportunities throughout college and postgraduate. 

But, in the battle between co-ops vs. internships, there are several factors you have to consider. While both experiences have similar benefits, one of them will likely be better suited to your interests, goals, and schedule! This guide will delve into these differences!

What is an Internship?

An internship is a structured professional learning experience that provides students with hands-on work directly related to their field of study or career interests. 

It offers students the opportunity for career exploration, skill development, and industry exposure while also benefiting employers by bringing new ideas and talent into the workplace. 

Internships come in various forms, including summer internships, part-time internships during the academic year, virtual internships, and international internships.

A quality internship includes a clear job description, meaningful work assignments, organizational orientation, defined learning goals, and regular feedback to the intern.

What is a Co-op?

A co-op, short for cooperative education, is a program that integrates classroom learning with periods of practical, hands-on experience in a professional setting. 

In a co-op program, students alternate between academic study and full-time employment, allowing them to gain valuable real-world experience related to their field of study before graduation. 

These programs can vary in structure and duration, with colleges offering a variety of co-op options to suit students' needs and career goals.

What Is the Difference Between a Co-Op and an Internship?

interns in meeting

There are several notable differences between a co-op vs. an internship:


The first difference is their structure. Co-ops are generally offered through students’ high schools and are completed part-time while the student is still in school. This means students spend one to two days a week completing their co-op and the other days going to school.

On the other hand, internships’ time commitments can vary. You may join a summer internship which will require full-time hours, or a part-time internship that you participate in after school or on weekends. 


The great part of co-ops is you do not have to search too far to find them. Your school will offer certain co-op programs each year, and you can choose which one to participate in. You may have to submit an application to this co-op, but you will have a high chance of getting it.

Internships may not be as easy to join. While your school counselor may be able to help you find some, you will have to research these internships yourself, create a resume for them, and potentially submit other application materials. Depending on the type of internship, you may be competing with hundreds of other students! 


Co-op programs are completed for academic credit and are rarely paid. Internships do not usually offer academic credit and may be unpaid, but numerous paid internships are also available to students. Paid internships are always more competitive, so getting into them will be more difficult. 


Co-ops tend to last a semester or two, whereas internships may last anywhere from a few weeks to several months! 

Career Development

While the skills you develop and the mentoring you receive depend entirely on the internship you join, co-ops are typically more hands-on with coaching and providing students with career development. 

These programs are specifically created for students to hone their professional skills, explore their career interests, and gain useful work experience to help them in their future endeavors. You will have a teacher or counselor checking in with you and ensuring you make the most out of the experience.

While internships will undoubtedly help in your career development, this is not their primary goal. 

These internships are run by organizations that have their own goals to meet. They will also generally give you fewer tasks, as you will have little experience in the field. Interns typically do what is considered “grunt work,” so you may not get the same active, hands-on experience you would get through a co-op.

Co-Op vs. Internship: Which Is Better?

The answer to the question, “co-op vs. internship, which is better?” depends on your personal preferences! While co-ops may be easier to find and accommodate your school schedule, internships are generally more demanding, giving you a better chance of making connections and developing your skills. 

You will also have more options if you choose to participate in an internship. Many prominent organizations, such as universities, hospitals, governments, and research institutes, offer competitive internships that can help you build strong professional connections and launch you into your desired field. 

If you already have a busy schedule with your extracurriculars, community service engagements, and/or work commitments, then a co-op is likely the better option for you. You will be participating in the program during school hours and will not have to worry about trying to fit everything into your schedule.

Additionally, for students who have yet to gain employment experience, joining an internship can be intimidating! Co-ops can provide you with hands-on experience with less stress, and you will have a mentor throughout the process.

person writing on tablet

When Should You Consider Taking an Internship?

College students should consider taking an internship after their sophomore or junior year of college. This timing offers several advantages. By this point, students have typically settled into their academic studies and have a clearer sense of their career interests. 

This clarity allows them to make the most of their internship experience. Moreover, many internships are designed for rising juniors or seniors, providing valuable exposure to industry environments and potential career pathways. 

Additionally, completing an internship during these years aligns with the recruitment cycles of many companies, increasing students' access to a wider range of internship opportunities. 

Overall, participating in an internship during these pivotal years of college can significantly boost students' career readiness and pave the way for future success in their chosen fields.

When Should You Consider Taking a Cooperative Education?

Many students begin exploring co-op opportunities during their sophomore or junior year of college. These programs provide hands-on experience in a professional setting, helping students apply what they've learned in the classroom to real-world situations. 

Co-ops often last for several semesters, allowing students to gain a deeper understanding of their field while earning academic credit. Overall, Co-op experiences offer a straightforward way to bridge the gap between academic study and practical skills, preparing students for future career success.

FAQs: Internship vs. Co-Op

In the battle of internships vs. co-ops, there are pros and cons to both positions. While we’ve provided you with the major differences between these two opportunities, you may still have some questions. To hopefully address these, here are the answers to frequently asked questions about internships and co-op programs.

1. Is a Co-Op the Same as an Internship?

No, co-ops and internships are not the same. Co-ops are completed through high schools and typically involve an alternating schedule where students work one or two school days and go to school the other days.

Internships are held by other organizations that the student must find and apply to. They are more competitive and may be paid or unpaid, whereas co-ops are typically always unpaid.

2. What Are the Pros and Cons of Co-Op?

The major pros of co-ops are that they accommodate students’ schedules, are readily available for students, and include mentoring and career development. Some cons are that they are generally not paid and can interfere with your school schedule as you will not be able to take regular courses during the semester of your co-op.

3. Should I Apply for an Internship or Co-Op?

When choosing between a co-op vs. an internship, it’s best to consider your personal preferences, other commitments, confidence levels, and aspirations. If a large organization offers an internship that you can apply for, this may boost your resume more than a high school co-op position would. 

For instance, NASA offers competitive internship programs to high school students, which will certainly bolster aspiring STEM majors’ resumes. However, if you are limited on time, a co-op position would work better for you, as it would be completed during regular school hours.

4. Can High School Students Participate In Co-Op Programs and Internships at the Same Time?

While it is possible for high school students to participate in both co-op programs and internships, it may be difficult to juggle these commitments at the same time. Before committing to anything, go over your schedule and make a realistic choice that ensures you avoid burnout! 

A more time-effective alternative would be to complete your co-op program during the school year and participate in a summer internship. 

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, both co-op and internship programs for high school students can be valuable experiences to make them more attractive college and employment candidates. Ensure you look into the co-op programs your school offers and the internships available in your area and consider your goals, availability, and priorities!

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