It is known that T cells engage antigen-presenting cells (APCs) in a stable interaction that results in sustained TCR signaling. We show here that the duration of this process is critical in determining whether T cells will be activated or deleted. Whereas naive T cells require approximately 20 hr of sustained signaling to be committed to proliferation, effector T cells become committed after only 1 hr but die following activation if antigenic stimulation is prolonged. Costimulation by anti-CD28 facilitates T cell activation by decreasing the time of commitment and by protecting T cells from death. These findings explain in quantitative terms the essential requirement for professional APCs in T cell priming and show that the duration of antigenic stimulation is the major factor determining the fate of naive and effector T cells.