The assembly of specific synaptic connections during development of the nervous system represents a remarkable example of cellular recognition and differentiation. Neurons employ several different cellular signaling strategies to solve this puzzle, which successively limit unwanted interactions and reduce the number of direct recognition events that are required to result in a specific connectivity pattern. Specificity mechanisms include the action of contact-mediated and long-range signals that support or inhibit synapse formation, which can take place directly between synaptic partners or with transient partners and transient cell populations. The molecular signals that drive the synaptic differentiation process at individual synapses in the central nervous system are similarly diverse and act through multiple, parallel differentiation pathways. This molecular complexity balances the need for central circuits to be assembled with high accuracy during development while retaining plasticity for local and dynamic regulation.