So what is the difference between a co-op and an internship?
An internship during Fall/Spring can be classified as either an internship or a co-op:
Internship – you work in a company for less than 20 hours per week during Fall/Spring, and you are enrolled in at least 9 credits (full-time courseload).
Co-op – you take a sabbatical of one semester to work full-time for up to 40 hours per week at a company. You do not enroll in any credits towards your degree in this semester, but you will have to enroll for some special co-op course that is the equivalent of full-time courseload. This course might be for-credit (1-3 credits) or might not be credited at all. In any case, this course indicates that you’re still enrolled and that you satisfy the F-1 visa requirement of full-time workload.
Most schools allow Fall/Spring internships, but not many offer Fall/Spring co-ops with a sabbatical from school. Also, you’ll be working during your co-op on your CPT (explained further in detail below), which can be a maximum of 11 months. So, that means if you intern full-time (40 hrs/wk) during summer and then get a co-op (or for that matter, a Fall/Spring internship), you will be able to do this only once – 3 months for the summer stint and 5 months in the Spring/Fall.
What are these summer internships that everyone keeps talking about so much? Are they the same as co-ops?
Well, in a way, yes. What we call as summer internships are nothing but full-time co-ops that usually stretch for 10 weeks. In these, you would mostly be working at the company full-time without taking any classes in summer and hence it will be counted as a part of your full-time CPT.
Usually, it’s easier to get into a summer internship first and then be continued for a co-op during the Fall. This is because most companies do hire for the summer, but the case isn’t so in Spring/Fall for the co-ops.
For a co-op, companies mostly prefer to continue with people who’ve already worked at the same place in their internship. And the problem’s worse in Spring, because companies are generally loathe to hire at the end of the accounting year in Nov-Dec. Not to discourage you Spring entrants, but that’s how it is. Hence, by all means, do try to get a Spring co-op/internship if you can in your 3rd semester, but don’t be too hopeful. Therefore, I’d say your best chance to get one is in the summer after the 3rd semester, so you can try to get hired for a co-op after summer in the Fall.
Fall co-ops/interns might be in school over the Spring sem as well, so that means that person might be allowed/able to work on CPT status for almost the entire CPT period. Now, interns are generally paid less money (in most, not all, cases) as compared to their full-time counterparts, and also don’t need to be paid other benefits such as insurance coverage, 401K, etc. So getting someone on as an intern for a longer period is definitely preferable for a company (more so a small or a medium-sized one) as compared to hiring someone full-time. And chances are, even if the intern(s) hired are not as experienced or knowledgeable as someone that might’ve been hired for an equivalent full-time role, the company can probably hire multiple interns at the cost of that one full-time employee. And even then they might end up saving some money. So it is always in the company’s interest to try to keep someone in an intern role for as long as possible. And that’s not really a bad thing for you either – as long as you get the work-ex and are completing your degree concurrently. But if you’re worried about the fact that you’re probably not gonna earn as much in an internship, then you shouldn’t take any such offer up.