What is the Difference Between a Co-Op vs. an Internship?

So, you’re a college student looking to maximize your time in school. You want to make your dreams a reality and land a job right after graduation. Sound familiar? If you can relate, you’re not alone. But how can you make yourself stand out? With experience.

By pursuing an internship or a co-op, you’ll gain relevant experience that you can add to your toolbelt and resume. But what’s the difference between the two? Length. Both are great opportunities to pursue, but your decision will ultimately depend on how much time you have. To help you decide, here’s an in-depth breakdown:

Co-Ops and Internships Defined

First things first – let’s talk about the typical definitions of a co-op and an internship.

Co-op: a full-time, often paid, position that spans across multiple months or terms.

Internship: a part-time, sometimes unpaid, short-term work experience program.

Internships and co-ops are similar in that students spend an equal amount of time problem-solving and project managing. When determining who to hire for an internship or co-op, most companies say they base their decision on preferred major and leadership experience. In other words, companies are more likely to bring you on if your major aligns with what they’re looking for. And of course, any leadership experience you have will be valuable both to you and them.

Check out these stats! According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE)’s data from the 2020-2021 academic year, internships and co-ops yield similar outcomes.

Approximately 52% of interns were hired for a full-time position compared to 43% of co-ops. Retention rates depend on whether a student was hired for the company they interned or hired from a different company altogether. Candidates with internal internship or co-op experience had a retention rate of about 74%, whereas external candidates had about a 50% retention rate. Meaning, candidates who are hired full-time after a co-op or an internship are more likely than not to stay long-term. Keep that in mind as you think about where you could go next.

How to Choose Between a Co-Op and an Internship

When you should pursue a co-op opportunity

If you’ve decided on your career path, becoming a co-op might be your best bet. Because co-ops span over several months, you’ll get extensive experience in your desired field. Plus, having a full-time position will allow you to majorly contribute to ongoing projects and initiatives, which will give you a leg up amongst your peers. But keep in mind, sometimes a co-op can extend your degree program from 4 years to 5. This is because students typically take a semester off to complete their co-ops, though this may differ per university. We recommend meeting with your academic advisor to learn more about the specifics.

When you should pursue an internship opportunity

If you’re undecided or looking for a smaller time commitment, an internship may be right for you. Internships typically last for a few weeks over the summer, though it’s not uncommon for students to intern during a semester. Because they’re brief, you can participate in multiple internships to get a feel for what you’re interested in. The minimal time commitment makes it easier to juggle multiple priorities. Internships provide the opportunity to explore different companies and their cultures so you can pinpoint where you want to go after you graduate. Not to mention, the networking opportunities are endless! The more companies you intern for, the more people you can meet to expand your network post-graduation.

Co-Ops and Internships in Action

College Ave’s very own Brady Horne participated in both an internship and co-op before he became a full-time Financial Operations Analyst. We asked him to describe his experience:

College Ave: Did you participate in an internship or co-op with College Ave?

Brady Horne: I believe I technically participated in both. I started my internship in June 2020 with the IT team. Upon returning to Penn State for my senior year, I wanted to continue working, so I was able to [transition to] a remote co-op for two days a week.

CA: How would you describe your experience?

BH: [It was] both challenging, rewarding and not easy in the beginning. Although there was always someone willing to help, it was these challenges that encouraged me to investigate topics and gain deeper knowledge. By the end of that first summer, my technical skills had improved far more than I could have ever hoped.

CA: What are some skills you gained or strengthened during your internship or co-op?

BH: The greatest skills I learned [during] my internship with the IT team were SQL and general database management. I entered the internship with a [minimal foundation of] SQL, and I left the internship quite advanced. I learned about stored procedures, functions, jobs, ETL, data flow, automation, and so much more. When I moved into my co-op with Finance, I was able to take those skills [and] improve existing processes.

CA: Do you think this experience was beneficial for your post-grad success?

BH: My internship and co-op certainly contributed to my post-grad success, and it made the job search a lot less stressful. I was able to work hard and prove myself through my internships so that, when the time came to apply [for] a full-time position, there wasn’t much interviewing to be done. My work ethic and capabilities were already established. Even if I were to look for a job elsewhere, I know my experiences would’ve translated to other companies.

The Bottom Line

Whether you become an intern or a co-op, the experience is immeasurable – you’ll continue to build on your skillset and prepare yourself for the post-grad workforce. The time commitment is the biggest difference between both opportunities, but you can’t go wrong with either one. It ultimately boils down to what works best with your current time and future goals. More importantly, you’ll have the opportunity to expand your network, which will give you a leg up amongst your peers once you graduate. But for now, get out there and start building your resume!


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