Activation of immune cells results in rapid functional changes, but how such fast changes are accomplished remains enigmatic. By combining time courses of 4sU-seq, RNA-seq, ribosome profiling (RP), and RNA polymerase II (RNA Pol II) ChIP-seq during T cell activation, we illustrate genome-wide temporal dynamics for ∼10,000 genes. This approach reveals not only immediate-early and posttranscriptionally regulated genes but also coupled changes in transcription and translation for >90% of genes. Recruitment, rather than release of paused RNA Pol II, primarily mediates transcriptional changes. This coincides with a genome-wide temporary slowdown in cotranscriptional splicing, even for polyadenylated mRNAs that are localized at the chromatin. Subsequent splicing optimization correlates with increasing Ser-2 phosphorylation of the RNA Pol II carboxy-terminal domain (CTD) and activation of the positive transcription elongation factor (pTEFb). Thus, rapid de novo recruitment of RNA Pol II dictates the course of events during T cell activation, particularly transcription, splicing, and consequently translation.