A small fraction of the CD8 T cell effector population that responds to an infection progresses through the contraction phase to the memory stage. The factors regulating the extent of contraction are poorly understood. Competition for limited resources has been widely postulated to be the cause of cell death during the contraction phase, but our data show that competition does not affect contraction kinetics. We go on to demonstrate that all effector cells present at the peak of the response have the potential to become bona fide memory cells, thus excluding selection on the basis of functionality. We propose that the fate of a CD8 effector cell is predetermined before the onset of contraction and discuss possible mechanisms of regulation.