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Student Potential

Co-op vs Internship: What is the Real Difference?

February 8, 2024Back to Learning Centre

If you want to help your child choose a career, one of the best ways to do so is by encouraging them to sign up for trial run through a co-op or internship. Choosing between co-op and internship opportunities can be just as important as choosing the right post secondary program. But in order to do so, you need to know the differences between these two types of programs. We outline what co-op placements and internship programs are, as well as the advantages of each below.


What is an internship? An internship is a short term program that gives students practical work experience in a specific field. Most internships are designed to give students exposure to a career path that they are interested in, so they can gain skills and get a better understanding of what the occupation would look like on a day-to-day basis. They can be pursued independently or as part of a post-secondary program to earn your degree, diploma, or certificate.

Most internships are part-time, especially when offered during the school year. However, some may be full-time for a shorter period, such as over the summer months.. Not only can these programs help students decide what career to pursue after post secondary school, but they can also be valuable networking opportunities, increasing the odds that the student can find a job in their preferred field after university.


A co-op is similar to an internship in that it can give students exposure to a career path that they are interested in. However, there are a few key differences that set co-op programs in their own lane. First, it is worth noting that co-op is short for cooperative education. This signifies the cooperative relationship between the post secondary school, the student, and the employer, which is crucial to the program.

Co-op programs typically run throughout the school year, with students agreeing to work for the same employer over the course of multiple terms while completing their studies. Typically, the student works with the post secondary school to find the best co-op placement for their needs and goals. Most students who opt for a co-op program complete the bulk of the program during work terms that alternate with school terms. Given the program’s structure, co-op students may take longer to complete their studies than other undergraduate students.

That said, there are many advantages to enrolling in a co-op program, such as practical, hands-on experience, the building of skills, and networking opportunities. So even though it may take you longer to complete your degree or diploma if you decide to enter into a co-op program, there will be several benefits that you derive from it.

Please note that co-op programs at Canadian colleges and universities are available for all kinds of fields and departments, ranging from engineering and computer science to business, government, and even the arts.

Types of co-op programs in Canada

You’re probably wondering – “how do I know what program is best for me or my child?” To help you decide between an internship or a co-op program lets get into the three main types of co-ops in Canada; full-time programs, part-time programs, and one-semester programs. We explain each below.

Full-time co-op programs

Full-time co-op programs, also known as alternating semester programs, are the most popular of the three types. With this type of co-op, the student alternates between one semester of academic work and one semester of work-based training with their co-op employer. This way, the student is never working and studying at the same time, easing their stress and workload.

That said, these types of co-op programs may delay your graduation date. However, one way around this is to take some of your co-op terms during the summer months.

Part-time co-op programs

Part-time or parallel co-op programs are a type of co-op where the student is both studying and working at the same time. However, the work they do for their co-op employer is completed on a part-time basis rather than a full-time one . For most part-time co-op students, they work 20 hours a week at most. These types of programs are less common in Canada, though they do have the advantage of allowing the student to finish their degree on time.

One-semester co-op programs

Finally, one-semester co-op programs are the third type of co-op placement. As the name suggests, these programs are shorter in length, typically lasting just one semester. In this way, one-semester co-op programs are the most similar type of co-op program to internships. They are best suited to those who only have time to devote one semester, usually over the summer, to full-time work. As these are the least common type of co-op program, make sure that your post secondary institution is offering or will allow you to accept this type of position.

Co-ops vs. internships: How do they differ?

Now that you have a full picture of co-ops and internships, let’s explain how they differ from one another.

Length of time

Co-op programs are most often full-time work positions that are completed over multiple terms. However, internships may be completed on a part-time basis and are usually shorter in duration, such as the length of one semester or one summer.


Payment for these types of programs also varies. Where co-op students are usually compensated for their work, many internships are unpaid. Paid internships do exist but they are more rare than paid co-ops.

Flexible work schedule

Co-op programs are typically less flexible than internships and require the student to commit to working for one employer for multiple terms. Meanwhile, internships are very short-term, which means that a student could theoretically complete multiple of them, with different employers or even in different fields, over the course of their post-secondary education. Also keep in mind that if you select a co-op that doesn’t meet your expectations for any reason, it’s likely that you’ll have to stick out the term unless a co-op transfer is possible. We recommend speaking to your school’s co-op placement department to see what options are available to you in the event that this happens.

Impact on your post secondary degree

Co-op placements are more likely to impact how long it takes for you to complete your post-secondary degree. This is especially the case with full-time co-op placements, since you are alternating between work and study terms. In contrast, internships are less likely to impact your degree, since they are shorter in length and often completed over the summer. Both options can be degree dependent so failing to complete a required placement term can push back your graduation timeline.

Factors Co-op Internship
Paid? Yes Not typically
Part or full-time? Can be either Part-time or full-time for short period
Length of time? By semester – can be ongoing throughout program duration Short term – 2-3 months
Impact Degree? If prolonged If prolonged
Eligible for Academic credit? Yes Not typically


*information in chart is generalized. Factors vary by program; always consult a placement specialist when deciding which option is best for you.


Why complete an internship or co-op?

The reality is that both internships and co-ops are valuable experiences that can complement a student’s academic pursuits. While choosing between them might be difficult, you will be making a good decision no matter which you choose. The advantages of completing either an internship or co-op include:

You will learn more about a career path you are interested in

First, by taking part in a co-op or internship, you will learn more about a career path that you are interested in. Both give students a chance to gain hands-on, real-life experience in a field that interests them. This is extremely valuable, as it can help you decide whether to pursue a job in this field once you are out of university. Working in a certain field can either affirm or dissuade you from going down a particular career path. It can even influence what university courses or programs you take.

You will learn directly from professionals in the field

Another pro of co-ops and internships is that they allow students to learn directly from professionals. In the future, if they were to ever work with this employer full-time, they would already have an idea of what the work culture is like and what skills are required to do the job, making it easier for them to get acclimatized to the position. It is not uncommon for interns and co-op students to receive job offers from their employers after they graduate.

You will gain plenty of networking opportunities

A third benefit of co-ops and internships is that you will gain exposure to a broader professional network within your chosen career field. This allows you to meet new people and start developing your own personal network. The more people you network with, the more opportunities you may have later on in life, whether you’re considering attending postgraduate school or looking for a job.

You may be able to travel

Depending on where your internship or co-op placement is located, signing up for this type of program may give you an opportunity to travel. Many post secondary institutions in Canada have partnerships with employers and global higher education institutions. Completing an internship or co-op may give you a chance to take in a new culture and explore a part of the world you’ve never been to.

Written by Embark

Embark is Canada’s education savings and planning company. The organization aims to help families and students along their post-secondary journeys, giving them innovative tools and advice to take hold of their bright futures and succeed.