Experience is the #1 thing that employers seek in qualified candidates. “Experiential education” (internships, cooperative education, significant volunteer experience, etc.) provides a glimpse into the world of work, allowing you to apply what you have learned in class and enabling you to build relationships with current professionals in a field of interest. The University Career Center provides several avenues for you to pursue experiential education opportunities.

What is an internship? What is a co-op?

What is an internship? 

UNC Charlotte broadly defines an internship as a fixed, short-term (at least 5 weeks and 80 hours in a given semester), work experience in a professional setting as an extension of classroom learning. UNC Charlotte interns can work up to 40 hours a week during summer and up to 20 hours per week in the Fall and Spring semesters.

Internships may be obtained through an established internship program or something that the student and the employer create together to fit the student’s skills and interests and the employer’s specific needs. Internships may be paid or unpaid.                                           

A combination of goal-setting, training, supervision, and evaluation should be defined and agreed upon by all parties: the student, the employer, and a university faculty/staff administrator, especially if academic credit is involved.


What is a co-op? 

A Co-Op is typically a full-time, paid position within a company or organization that spans over the course of multiple semesters. There will usually be more training and higher levels of responsibility than with an internship. UNC Charlotte’s Co-op requires students and employers to submit formal evaluations and the semester in which the student returns to campus he/she must do a presentation of their experience to faculty advisers.

Whats the difference? 

Both internship and cooperative education program experiences allow you to apply what you have learned in class in a professional setting.   The difference between the two lies most in the number, pattern, and work hours to which students and employers commit. Co-ops require students commit to multiple periods of work. The typical program plan is for students to alternate terms of full-time classroom study with terms of full-time, discipline-related employment. Since program participation involves multiple work terms, the typical participant will work three or four work terms, thus gaining a year or more of career-related work experience before graduation. Virtually all co-op positions are paid and the vast majority involve some form of academic credit. In contrast, internships, whether for academic credit or not, typically involve a time commitment of only one semester. Internships can be paid or unpaid.

Why is an internship important?

In today’s competitive job market, an internship is just one more step in creating a well-rounded portfolio of experiences that will give you a competitive edge in the job market. Internships or other relevant work experience have the following benefits: 

  • Gaining new skills and professional contacts in the world of work
  • Exploring career interests without making a long-term commitment to a position or field
  • Clarifying your interests, skills, and career goals
  • Establishing a relationship with your supervisor who may serve as an important professional reference when you begin a job search or who may be inclined to hire you at that company after a successful internship experience. 
  • Applying classroom knowledge to the workplace which may, in turn, shape your course of study.

Who can do an internship?

Every student can benefit from one or several internships. Unless a company, organization, academic department specifies a class status, GPA, etc. all students may apply.

When should I do an internship?

It’s never too early to explore your career options. Many students plan to do an internship the summer after their junior year, but any time you can devote to an internship is the right time.   The University Career Center encourages you to start right away, be aware of deadlines, and apply for opportunities until you are offered one. Keep in mind that organizations often recruit for interns 1-2 semester(s) in advance.  During the academic year, you may only be able to devote up to 20 per week to an internship. During the summer months, you may wish to work anywhere from 20-40 hours each week. There is no specific number of internship sites that you should plan to contact. How you research and select potential sponsors will be entirely up to you.  The sooner you begin your internship search, the more likely you are to succeed.


If you have any concerns or questions about your experiential education experience (Internship, Co-op, CPT, etc.), please contact James Novak, Assistant Director for Experiential Education, at 704-687-0787 or jnovak4@uncc.edu.

The University Career Center adheres to the National Association of College and Employers (NACE) and U.S. Bureau of Labor – Fair Labor Standards Act guidelines to review and approve internships on Hire-A-Niner. These guidelines, outlined for you below, will help you understand the professional principles, which define an internship, especially if the opportunity is unpaid. If you meet all of the measures above, NACE and the U.S. Department of Labor considers that the position is indeed a true internship experience.

“An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths, and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.” – NACE’s Position Statement: U.S. Internships.

U.S. Department of Labor – Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act


The FLSA requires “for-profit” employers to pay employees for their work. Interns and students, however, may not be “employees” under the FLSA—in which case the FLSA does not require compensation for their work.

The Test for Unpaid Interns and Students

Courts have used the “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern or student is, in fact, an employee under the FLSA. 2 In short, this test allows courts to examine the “economic reality” of the internemployer relationship to determine which party is the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. Courts have identified the following seven factors as part of the test:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Frequently Asked Questions for Internships