Depression is a significant public health problem for young adults of college age, and negative life events exacerbate risk. Not all individuals who experience negative life events, however, report depressive symptoms, perhaps owing to protective characteristics. We examined one such characteristic, trait hope, a goal-oriented construct, as a potential moderator of the association between negative life events and depressive symptoms in an ethnically diverse sample of 386 college students. In support of our hypotheses, negative life events were significantly associated with greater levels of depressive symptoms, and higher levels of hope attenuated this relationship, such that those with greater hope reported fewer depressive symptoms related to potentially traumatic events. The moderating effect of hope did not differ across ethnic groups. Our findings have implications for managing the sequelae of negative life events, including depression. Cognitive–behavioural interventions tailored to help young adults identify and attain important life goals might help to overcome psychopathology associated with life stress. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.