What Is an Internship and What Is an Externship? A Guide for International Students

career planning
work visa usa
Let us help you find your best fit university!Find your school
By Sakina Taher
Last updated on August 11, 2023

Want to pursue a career in the US? Learn about the differences between internships, externships, and co-ops and how they affect your future career.

International students handling equipment in a laboratory

Internships, externships, and cooperative education programs (co-ops) offer invaluable opportunities for hands-on, real-world learning to help you stand out in a competitive job market. Working at an internship also makes important connections that can lead to career success: According to Zippia, approximately 70% of interns receive job offers from their internship employer.

But what is an internship? What is an externship? What’s a co-op? For international students, knowing which job to consider while still studying at university can take a bit of familiarization and research. 

What Is the Difference Between an Internship, Externship, and a Co-op?

In the US, some may use these terms interchangeably, but there are a few key details to know. In general, internships involve hands-on professional responsibilities such as research, building reports, assisting with small-scale events and/or office tasks, and more. Externs usually shadow a professional without performing job-related tasks. Last but not least, co-ops are a long-term professional commitment that allow you to build a comprehensive understanding of your field. By understanding their differences, you can make informed decisions about which student employment type aligns with your career goals.


An internship is often a temporary paid or unpaid role requiring full-time or part-time work spanning between eight weeks and six months. During your internship, you will share similar responsibilities to full-time employees, with a focus on learning and improving knowledge and soft skills.

Your internship may involve learning from mentors, working with peer interns on projects, conducting research, and more. Many internships can also lead to full-time jobs as companies recruit candidates who display advanced skills and knowledge. You can also do more than one internship during your degree program to gain a better understanding of how different industries operate and which field you might want to pursue in the future.

For some universities, an internship may also include course credits.


Externships are usually temporary, short-term professional learning programs that involve shadowing professionals and learning from them while they work. Externships are less formal compared to internships and usually last from a day to a few weeks. During an externship, you can expect to sit in on meetings and observe professionals at work, giving you the chance to take notes and learn from experienced employees. Most externships are unpaid, but expose you to different industries, job roles, and departments. You will also have the opportunity to meet and network with professionals in the field.

Co-ops (Co-operative Education Programs)

Co-ops, or cooperative education programs, are often similar to internship programs where you gain work experience in the industry you’re considering for your career. The key difference between a co-op and an internship is that co-ops are often a full-time requirement and may include a commitment spanning three months to one year. Benefits include working full time on bigger, longer-term projects, getting paid for your work, and likely earning course credits.

Co-ops are more common in engineering and technology programs, but you can also find prospects in business, liberal arts, and science fields. Co-ops give you the chance to widen your network, earn an income and/or credits, and build a strong resume

How to Find Internships, Externships, and Co-ops While Studying

Finding internships, externships, and co-ops while studying in the US can be challenging, but with the right preparation, you can find opportunities to build the professional skills you need for your future career. Here are a few pointers to consider:

  1. Use multiple platforms — Attend career fairs, join academic clubs and organizations, and participate in events where you can meet professionals from your field. While this is a chance for you to market your knowledge and skills, professionals and experts who work in the industry can share valuable insights on upcoming recruitment in your top-choice companies. You can also get recommendations from alumni, professors, or community members who work in your desired industry.

  2. Maintain a presence on LinkedIn and Indeed — These two platforms are among the most popular job search engines in the US. A LinkedIn account allows you to browse for job openings and connect with industry professionals, who can also learn more about your career goals and academic qualifications by visiting your profile. Indeed is a worldwide employment website that lets you search for multiple jobs based on location, industry, and more. You can submit your resume, receive phone alerts, and bookmark jobs you are considering. 

  3. Build a strong resume — Your resume is one of the first impressions employers will have of you, and should be kept up to date with your skills and experiences. Tailor your resume specifically for each job you are pursuing. Many university career services staff — as well as Shorelight advisors — can help you prepare and update your resume, offer professional tips and advice, and more.

  4. Career Premium Shorelight’s Career Premium program supports students in becoming career-ready through skills workshops, professional training, and virtual internships with top US companies. Learn industry-specific skills, plus get support with your job search process, resume building, interview preparation, and more. 

Shorelight universities also offer students first-hand opportunities for academic and professional growth through specialized programs. For example, students can engage in experiential learning opportunities in cell and molecular biology, microbiology, and more through the Biological Sciences program at the University of the Pacific, with co-ops and internships available at local dental and medical offices as well as the Micke Grove Zoo. The Fenn Co-op program at Cleveland State University combines engineering coursework with real-world work experiences at government agencies, consulting firms, and industrial manufacturing companies in and around Cleveland. Additionally, students who want to develop skills and experiences in specific fields such as kinesiology can pursue programs with independent research and/or internship components at University of Illinois Chicago.

Once you identify a suitable internship, externship, or co-op program, the next step involves applying for the role and having a successful interview. It is ideal to prepare for the interview beforehand by practicing answers to common questions. Interviewers may ask questions about your academic education in the US and extracurricular activities, along with more technical questions such as your visa type and the number of hours you are eligible to work in the US.

Visa Requirements to Work While Studying in the US

As an international student, your student visa outlines the terms and conditions of your education and employment while you study in the US. To maintain your visa eligibility, it is essential that you understand and follow these guidelines exactly. You will need either an F-1 or J-1 visa to work in the US; here are the work requirements for each.

F-1 Visa 

Students with an F-1 visa must first apply for work authorization known as Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and an updated I-20 form to participate in internships, externships, or co-ops. To work through CPT, you must complete two full-time semesters and work in a field related to your degree. You can work up to 20 hours per week on campus or off campus, with the permission of your university. Once you complete your degree, you can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and work for up to 12 months; STEM graduates may request an additional two years for a total of three years OPT eligibility. 

J-1 Visa

The J-1 visa, also known as the Exchange Visitor Visa or J student visa, is for international students who wish to take part in study- and work-related exchange programs approved by the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

To apply for the J-1 visa program, you must complete Form DS-2019 and be a student or graduate from a higher education institution outside the US. The program offers two types of visas — an intern visa for up to 12 months and a trainee visa for up to 18 months if you have a minimum of five years of work experience outside the US. Note that you cannot engage in casual work, and clerical work must not exceed 20% of your job. Remember to state the specific dates of your program, and plan to leave the US within 30 days of its completion. 

Both visas require an application fee and it is essential to follow the regulations to qualify for work in the US. To ensure you stay up to date, visit the official Department of State website or reach out to a Shorelight advisor.

Internship, externship, and co-op programs are an important part of a well-rounded education experience in the US. While you gain in-depth theoretical knowledge within the classroom, internship, externship, and co-op opportunities provide practical training and the chance to apply your classroom knowledge in the real-world work environment. Gain industry-relevant skills, build connections, and enhance your academic experience in the US as you pursue your career goals. With the support of a Shorelight advisor, you can apply for jobs with ease, prepare for interviews, gain visa assistance, and stand out to employers around the world!

Shorelight advisors offer support with career development opportunities >