The cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors (CKIs) bind to and directly regulate the catalytic activity of cyclin-dependent kinase (Cdk)/cyclin complexes involved in cell cycle control and do not regulate other, closely related Cdks. We showed previously that the CKI, p27, binds to Cdk2/cyclin A though a sequential mechanism that involves folding-on-binding. The first step in the kinetic mechanism is interaction of a small, highly dynamic domain of p27 (domain 1) with the cyclin subunit of the Cdk2/cyclin A complex, followed by much slower binding of a more lengthy and less flexible domain (domain 2) to Cdk2. The second step requires folding of domain 2 into the kinase inhibitory conformation. Rapid binding of p27 domain 1 to cyclin A tethers the inhibitor to the binary Cdk2/cyclin A complex, which reduces the entropic barrier associated with slow binding of domain 2 to the catalytic subunit. We show here that p27/cyclin interactions are an important determinant of p27 specificity towards cell cycle Cdks. We used surface plasmon resonance, limited proteolysis, mass spectrometry, and NMR spectroscopy to study the interaction of p27 with Cdk2/cyclin A, and with another Cdk complex, Cdk5/p25, that is involved in neurodegeneration. Importantly, Cdk5/p35 (the parent complex of Cdk5/p25) is not regulated by p27 in neurons. Our results show that p27 binds to Cdk5 and Cdk2 with similar, slow kinetics. However, p27 fails to interact with p25 within the Cdk5/p25 complex, which we believe prevents formation of a kinetically trapped, inhibited p27/Cdk5/p25 complex in vivo. The helical topology of p25 is very similar to that of cyclin A. However, p25 lacks the MRAIL sequence in one helix that, in the cell cycle cyclins, mediates specific interactions with domain 1 of p21 and p27. Our results strongly suggest that p21 and p27, related Cdk inhibitors, select their cell cycle regulatory Cdk targets by binding specifically to the cyclin subunit of these Cdk/cyclin complexes as a first step in a sequential, folding-on-binding mechanism.