What’s the difference between co-ops and internships?

Co-op student working at desk
Justine Written by Justine (she/her), student

Are internships and co-op the same thing? At surface level they seem like they are, they both provide you with work experience and give you the skills needed to build your career early on, but what’s the difference?

Diving deeper, there are key differences between both co-ops and internships that you should know to help you decide between a program with co-op or a program with an internship. I’m here to help you understand what co-op and internships are, their similarities and differences, and if either one is the right decision for you.

Co-op vs. internship, which is better? Each option has its pros and cons, and there's no right or wrong choice. It's important to assess the differences and make the right choice for you — maybe it's co-op, maybe it's an internship, or maybe it's neither!

Having a program that included co-op was key while I was exploring different degrees and schools, and luckily enough I found exactly what I was looking for. Being a co-op student has allowed me to engage in meaningful work, start my career early, and connect to people who have helped me explore my interests.

What is co-op?

Co-op integrates academic study terms with paid periods of relevant work experience. Meaning what you learn in class can be applied to real-world jobs, and then you can bring your workplace experience back into the classroom. This allows students to test-drive their careers early on.

At Waterloo, the co-op program typically alternates every four months between study terms and work terms. At Waterloo, once you graduate, you already have up to two years of work experience on your résumé!

Co-op at Waterloo started with 74 students in 1957 and has grown to more than 25,000 today. Initially only for engineering students, co-op is now available in more than 120 programs across all six pf our faculties. There are more than 7,500 active co-op employers in over 60 countries and Waterloo co-op graduates find more relevant work faster compared to other Ontario graduates (2019 Ontario University Graduate Survey). 

The best part about co-op is that it’s paid! Co-op students at Waterloo can expect first work term earnings of $8,400 - $15,000+ CAD. The alternating work/study format allows you to earn an income one term and use that money to help with costs for the next study term. Waterloo students typically have smaller student loans and are more successful at paying them back thanks to co-op.

Group of students working together at a blackboard

Knowing I could get work experience and make money while still in school was the best of both worlds. I’ve made great workplace connections which have helped me get part-time jobs during my study terms as well.

What is an internship?

Internships are usually less rigorous and only happen once during your degree. The most common time is during the summer. This means you don’t need to pause your study terms or extend your degree any longer.

An internship can be paid or unpaid depending on factors such as employer decision or industry rates. You’ll be able to stay at a job longer than in co-op, which can help you build trust with your team and get handed more projects.

Co-op vs. internship, what’s the same and what’s different?       


  • Start your career early on.
  • Gain skills related to your future career path and current studies.
  • Build a strong résumé.
  • Try new jobs and see what works and what doesn’t.
  • Engage in professional networking.
  • Have projects in your portfolio and work on tasks that make a difference.


  • Income. The average first Waterloo co-op work term earnings are $8,400 - $15,000+ CAD. (Canadian work terms in 2021) While internships can be often be unpaid.
  • Effort. Internships are placement based, which means less work for you. Co-op is up to you, from applying and interviewing, the outcome depends on your effort.
  • Duration. Co-op alternates every four months, and you can have four to six work terms. An internship happens once and is longer.

Person lounging on a chair and watching an airplane through a window

Is co-op or an internship the right decision for you?

While these are both amazing things to do during your undergraduate degree, they might not be for everyone. For instance, enrolling in a co-op program at Waterloo will lengthen your degree to five years opposed to the traditional four years. 

I know personally before starting co-op, the idea of staying an extra year wasn’t ideal, but I am relieved I don’t have to know what I am doing after graduation just yet. University goes by quick, and the extra year is nice (and especially at Waterloo when so many of your classmates are in co-op, you almost forget about four years being the norm elsewhere.)

The co-op job search can be a lengthy process. During the study term before your co-op term, you will be actively participating in the job search. This means updating your résumé, applying to jobs, attending interviews, and ranking employers. This is hard work, and you need to give yourself the time to do this while also taking courses. Once you match with a job it will all be worth it, but dedication is needed for a co-op job search. It’s important to know what to expect in co-op and make sure you are prepared.

The student experience

I can tell you all the facts you need to know about co-op and internships, but the best way to learn more is through current students. “Co-op has honestly been a great asset to me. From my first co-op term to my third, I could say that I have improved in terms of the positions I’ve worked in,” shares third-year Actuarial Science student, Reynira. She always had an interest in mathematics and finance and being in the co-op program has allowed her to gain work experience in these areas while studying. The University of Waterloo stood out to her mainly for its mathematics faculty and co-op program. Knowing what co-op could provide her brought her here all the way from Trinidad and Tobago! 

There is a lot of competition faced when applying to jobs after graduating from university hence, I wanted to gain experience beforehand with the co-op program offered by Waterloo.

Reynira (she/her), Actuarial Science Honours student, co-op

Learning about what co-op is, and how it has benefited past students brought Madhav to where he is today. 

I assessed that Waterloo’s co-op is the best co-op in Canada and earning money to contribute to part of my tuition was a selling point.

Madhav  (he/him), Environment and Business student, co-op

Everything co-op had to offer helped him decide on work experience related to his degree, new skills, and taking what he learned from class and bringing it on site. “I am from India, and I chose Waterloo because I did not find any other universities that offered a degree in both sustainability and business. It was quite an interesting opportunity for me.”

Students problem-solving together

Samuel shares “I was born and raised in Ghana but ultimately decided to attend Waterloo because of the unique programs offered here. The opportunity to be part of the co-op program also helped sway my decision. I would one day like to run my own business.” He also shares that the job search can be challenging, but ultimately helps prepare for life after graduation.

I have gained so much relevant work experience that has developed me into the person I am today.

Samuel (he/him), Honours Environment and Business student, co-op

These three students all shared how much co-op has helped them so far, and how work terms have helped them grow as people, enrich their careers, and all over provide them with new skills and experiences.

Co-op and internships are great ways to start your career early on and give you the chance to learn about jobs and what works or doesn’t work for you. Having the opportunity to test jobs has taught me so much about how companies work, but also a lot about myself. These two opportunities will provide you with great experience and new skills, and make your time at university more memorable.  


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