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Career skills

Co-op vs. Internship

As a college student, you may be interested in rounding out your academic experience with experiential education. In other words, you want to gain experience in a job before graduation.

Undergraduate students have a couple of options to choose from, including co-ops and internships. Not sure what the difference between the two is? We’ll break it down for you below.

Co-op vs. internship—what’s the difference?

Co-ops and internships are similar in a lot of ways. Both opportunities give students the chance to explore a career before officially committing to it. They’re also great resume builders and get students a foot in the door before earning their degree.

So what’s the difference between a co-op and an internship?

“Co-op” stands for cooperative education. This term refers to a long-term, paid employment position that’s usually offered as part of an undergraduate program. Students who take part in a co-op program are typically not taking classes the same semester that they’re working. Usually, a student will only participate in one co-op placement throughout their academic career, staying with the same company.

On the other hand, internships have a shorter duration and are usually completed over the summer or in a single semester. Because internships require less of a time commitment, you can complete multiple internships during your time in college.

Internships are commonly unpaid, but it’s not rare to find paid ones, either. Many internships are offered to both undergraduate and graduate students.

What is a co-op internship?

A co-op is distinct from a traditional internship, although you may hear people refer to a “co-op internship.”

Co-ops typically require a longer commitment. This means you’ll need to plan your education carefully. For example, many co-ops can last a year (two semesters), three semesters, or longer. Since you’ll be at your co-op full-time, you most likely won’t be able to take classes.

Because the co-op adds additional semesters to your school term, your undergraduate program’s length could extend to five years instead of the typical four-year plan.

Types of Co-op programs

You have a few options when choosing a co-op program. Keep in mind that if your school requires you to complete a co-op, they may request that you choose a certain type of co-op.

There are essentially two different types of co-op programs.

Alternating

If you enroll in an alternating co-op, you will not be attending school at the same time as you are working at your co-op placement. An alternating co-op schedule usually means you’ll be spending one semester in the classroom and one at the placement. You’ll flip-flop between these semesters until your co-op program is completed.

Keep in mind that not taking courses consistently may affect any scholarships or grants that you’re receiving. You’ll need to check in with the distributers to make sure your funding isn’t affected.

Parallel

While most co-ops require participants to work full-time, there are occasionally co-ops that require students to work “parallel” schedules. A co-op with a parallel schedule structure means students will spend part of their time in the classroom and part of their time working in the same semester.

The exact requirements for the academic and work portions will depend on the specifics of your co-op. For example, some students may spend six credit hours in the classroom while working 20 hours in their co-op placement. Others may take additional credit hours but fewer co-op hours.

Co-op examples

There is virtually an endless amount of choices for co-ops. Examples of positions you might get include:

1. Engineering co-op internship with Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense company

2. Mechanical design co-op internship with Briggs and Stratton, a gasoline engine manufacturing company

3. Global purchasing and supply chain co-op internship with General Motors, an automobile manufacturing company

4. Research and development scientist co-op with Procter and Gamble, a consumer goods corporation

5. Software engineer co-op with Meta, formerly known as “Facebook”

Co-op FAQs

Before you accept a co-op offer, you’ll want to carefully consider the pros and cons of this type of position. Below, we list some of the most common questions students have about co-op internships.

Are co-op internships paid?

One of the main perks of choosing a co-op internship is that they are almost always paid. Paid traditional internships can be fairly competitive, making them less common than paid co-ops.

If you accept a co-op internship that follows an alternating schedule, you most likely won’t need to pay tuition during your co-op experience. If you choose a parallel co-op internship, you’ll probably pay a reduced tuition rate since you’ll be enrolled in fewer credit hours.

Keep in mind that you’ll still need to pay for your housing and any on-campus amenities you use. Additionally, some schools may charge a co-op fee rather than tuition, although this fee is often much smaller than a normal tuition bill.

Not having to pay full tuition for a semester could make it easier to pay for your education. How? You’ll be working a full-time (or part-time) job through your co-op, earning money without having to worry as much about academics. Even if you’re enrolled in a parallel co-op, your academic load will be greatly reduced so that you’re only taking a couple of classes at a time.

Can you earn college credit for co-ops?

Some schools require their students to complete a co-op before graduation. Don’t plan on getting academic credit for your co-op, though. Since you’ll likely be working full-time a couple of semesters while completing your co-op program, plan on your college experience lasting a year or longer than the typical four-year stint. If your co-op operates with a parallel structure, you may earn a few credits for the courses you take, but you won’t earn any for the co-op work itself.

Resources to find a co-op internship

Ready to get started with your co-op internship search? There are several ways you can connect with the right co-op program.

Career skills

First, make sure your career skills are up to date. Your co-op placement can be a stepping stone into your dream career, so making a good impression is essential. Check out this career skills resource to get all the information you need to know about networking and finding a great career coach to guide you through the process.

Entry-level careers

Spend some time researching the career path you’re interested in. What are some entry-level jobs that can help you work your way up to the job of your dreams? Consider applying for a co-op internship in one of these entry-level careers. While it isn’t a given, there’s a good chance you could get hired by the same company you interned with once you’ve graduated.

Cold email for an internship guide

What’s a cold email? It’s an unsolicited email that you send out in the hopes of making a connection. If you’re interested in working for a certain company, consider cold emailing a manager in the department you’d like to join. Sound like a shot in the dark? It can be, but there are ways to make your cold email stand out. Read this cold email guide for tips on writing one that will help you land a co-op internship.

Informational interviews guide

Another strategy for finding a co-op placement is through informational interviews. Identify a company you’d like to work with and request an informational interview with an employee. These informal conversations are a convenient way to network with people in the industry.

By Taylor Thompson

Taylor is a co-founder at Purpose Built Ventures, where he helps launch mission-driven companies. Before Purpose Built, Taylor led growth at Almanac, strategy for Curious Learning, and product at PharmaSecure. His work helps 100,000s of people collaborate at work, 4 million children learn to read, and protects billions of medicines from counterfeiting. He has hired dozens of people, helped raise more than $50 million, and contributed to HBR.org as a researcher with Clay Christensen. Taylor is an Echoing Green Fellow, and he has degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School.

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