Classifying the biological traits of organisms can test conceptual frameworks of life-history strategies and allow for predictions of how different species may respond to environmental disturbances. We apply a trait-based classification approach to a complex and threatened group of species, scleractinian corals. Using hierarchical clustering and random forests analyses, we identify up to four life-history strategies that appear globally consistent across 143 species of reef corals: competitive, weedy, stress-tolerant and generalist taxa, which are primarily separated by colony morphology, growth rate and reproductive mode. Documented shifts towards stress-tolerant, generalist and weedy species in coral reef communities are consistent with the expected responses of these life-history strategies. Our quantitative trait-based approach to classifying life-history strategies is objective, applicable to any taxa and a powerful tool that can be used to evaluate theories of community ecology and predict the impact of environmental and anthropogenic stressors on species assemblages.