Dendritic morphology has a profound impact on neuronal information processing. The overall extent and orientation of dendrites determines the kinds of input a neuron receives. Fine dendritic appendages called spines act as subcellular compartments devoted to processing synaptic information, and the dendritic branching pattern determines the efficacy with which synaptic information is transmitted to the soma. The acquisition of a mature dendritic morphology depends on the coordinated action of a number of different extracellular factors. Here we discuss this evidence in the context of dendritic development in the cerebral cortex. Soon after migrating to the cortical plate, neurons extend an apical dendrite directed toward the pial surface. The oriented growth of the apical dendrite is regulated by Sema3A, which acts as a dendritic chemoattractant. Subsequent dendritic development involves signaling by neurotrophic factors and Notch, which regulate dendritic growth and branching. During postnatal development the formation and stabilization of dendritic spines are regulated in part by patterns of synaptic activity. These observations suggest that extracellular signals play an important role in regulating every aspect of dendritic development and thereby exert a critical influence on cortical connectivity.