Polarization of effector CD4+ T cells can be influenced by both antigen-specific signals and by pathogen- or adjuvant-induced cytokines, with current models attributing a dominant role to the latter. Here we have examined the relationship between these factors in shaping cell-mediated immunity by using intravital imaging of CD4+ T cell interactions with dendritic cells (DCs) exposed to polarizing adjuvants. These studies revealed a close correspondence between strength of T cell receptor (TCR)-dependent signaling and T helper 1 (Th1) versus Th2 cell fate, with antigen concentration dominating over adjuvant in controlling T cell polarity. Consistent with this finding, at a fixed antigen concentration, adjuvants inducing Th1 cells operated by affecting DC costimulation that amplified TCR signaling. TCR signal strength controlled downstream cytokine receptor expression, linking the two components in a hierarchical fashion. These data reveal how quantitative integration of antigen display and costimulation regulates downstream checkpoints responsible for cytokine-mediated control of effector differentiation.