L.A.R.E. Prep: Practice Vignette Guide

 What are Practice Vignettes?  

The Practice Vignettes provided by ASLA:

  • introduce you to the format of Sections C and E of the Landscape Architecture Registration Exam (L.A.R.E.)
  • allow you to practice solving performance vignettes similar to those on the actual exam 
  • show a passable (but not perfect) solution to the vignette

Prior to working a Practice Vignette, visit the CLARB website (See Examinations/Prepare for the Exam) to ensure you understand and are familiar with the basic knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) necessary to sit for the exam.  You should also become familiar with basic exam terminology, exam structure, allowable materials, etc.

The CLARB website offers a number of free resources to help candidates better understand what to expect on each section of the L.A.R.E.  Having a solid understanding of the exam, its purpose, composition, how and what it tests (and what it does not), and how it is evaluated will help candidates to better prepare and develop realistic expectations for the exam experience.

Each Practice Vignette, in PDF format, contains:
a. problem statement
b. base sheet which must be printed out at 11" x 17" format for the proper scale
c. passable solution(s)

Prior to each administration of the exam, a series of problems are developed and reviewed for potential inclusion in the L.A.R.E.  The individual problems eventually included in Section C or E are chosen so that the group of problems together adequately address Exam Specifications for that section. The vignette problems that are not selected for the exam are used for Practice Vignettes.   While you will not see these specific Practice Vignettes on the exam, the format is the same and reflects the KSAs needed to successfully complete Sections C and E.  As with the actual exam vignettes, these individual Practice Vignettes do not contain all the KSAs that may be tested.  Keep in mind that the complexity and scope of individual vignettes vary whether they appear in the exam or in these practice vignettes.

Practice Vignettes Instructions

To get the most out of these exercises it is strongly recommended that you:
1. Initially attempt to solve the vignettes under exam conditions: 

  • To understand time and other realities of the exam, do not look at the solutions prior to your first attempt(s)
  • The average time frame for each individual vignette on the exam is 1 hour and 15 minutes, thus you should consider this in your practice attempts
  • Use the L.A.R.E. Reference Manual as you would at the exam.  This document is updated to reflect changes in the exam, so be sure you have the most up-to-date copy, which can be found in the L.A.R.E. Orientation Guide.  Review the L.A.R.E. Reference Manual prior to starting the vignette and have a hard copy available to refer to as you work.  This presents the codes and regulations of your vignette’s jurisdiction. 
  • Do not use any other reference materials for your initial attempt. (But certainly use them for later practice sessions to improve your competency!)
  • Work vignettes as you would under exam conditions --by yourself, at one sitting, no cell phone, etc. Time yourself.
  • Use only the materials allowed. 

2.  Review your work as it stands at the end of 75 minutes.   Consider critical errors in competency, completeness within the time frame, following problem statement directions, adhering to the L.A.R.E Reference Manual, addressing key issues, legibility, etc.

3.  Review provided passable solutions downloaded from the website.  Remember that there is no one “right” solution to the performance vignettes, and the provided solutions are “passable”—not necessarily superior.

4.  Identify your strengths and weaknesses and determine how to move forward.  Next steps can include practice, mentoring or remedial instruction, and better familiarization with reference materials.

5.  In subsequent study sessions, rework the vignette to improve your competence and speed.

  • Slightly change key features--raise or lower your FFE, move the entrance of the road so that it is still within L.A.R.E. requirements, etc., as there is no one passing solution to the vignettes.  (Sometimes you will get another passable solution; sometimes you will realize how important a few key decisions are at the beginning of the exercise.  Both the insights and the practice are good for you!)
  • Give yourself enough time to develop what you consider to be a passing solution so that you get comfortable with the competencies and process required.  (You may wish to do this second untimed try before looking at the provided solutions.)
  • Rework the vignette under exam situations after additional study and giving yourself a little time away.  Approach it as if it were new.

Vignette Strategies

Read the problem statement carefully, as this spells out the situation under which you are to solve the vignette. The problem statement typically contains the “critical fail” issues graders will be evaluating most stringently (i.e., the concerns that are very important and thus if not adequately resolved will likely result in failure for that vignette).

Identify Key Concerns!  Key concerns are the things you must do or else your solution will lose points.  These include:

  • Explicit directives: Major concerns for this site/users, program, precise requirements, and other information specific to solving the vignette can be found in 3 places—the problem statement, the L.A.R.E Reference Manual, and the base sheet.  
  • Implicit expectations of a minimally competent landscape architect.  There are health, safety and welfare issues you should not have to be told to consider because a minimally competent landscape architect should already be aware of them. Other examples of implicit requirements are that you should be capable of complying with regulatory requirements (e.g., Reference Manual Standards) and that siting of facilities should be done appropriately given the existing conditions present on your site.

Often, but not always, the problem statement’s key concerns are written in order of importance or organized as to how to address them most advantageously. Try to address the issues as they are given. As you finish a key concern, mark it off on the problem statement and/or L.A.R.E. Reference Manual as “completed”. Go back and check these at the end of your session so you don’t inadvertently forget to address anything.

When finished, assess what issues gave you problems:

  • Were you unable to finish in time?  Practice to improve speed, fluency, and confidence as well as competence. Try to determine what particular skills or tasks slowed you down. Work on improving in those areas.
  • After reading through the problem statement and reviewing the plan and program, were you able to conceptualize a strategic solution and approach to solving the problem?
  • Was your knowledge base lacking?  Were you unsure as to how to proceed? Use references, remedial workshops, friends, study partners or co-workers for help.  It may have been a long time since you have done grading or whatever, so go back and review.
  • What errors (if any) did you make and why did you make them? Some errors are competency based, but many are due to incorrectly interpreting and using the problem statement, failure to use the L.A.R.E. Reference Manual, etc.  These are test-taking mistakes rather than exam content deficiencies, and as such are easily corrected. 
  • Discuss your solution(s) with a knowledgeable mentor or swap solutions with a study buddy
  • Practice reworking the vignette, paying special attention to suggested strategies above


Frequent Vignette Mistakes

Designing or grading the way you do it in the office
The codes and regulations applicable in the vignettes are not the same as those for where you practice.  Think of the L.A.R.E. as working in a different municipality—you would have to adhere to their codes and regulations, correct?  The L.A.R.E. Reference Manual is simply a tightly edited generic code encompassing everything you will need from ADA requirements to environmental regulations to zoning.  If you can follow the vignette’s requirements, that suggests you are competent to become familiar with regulations in different jurisdictions and adequately apply them.  So, if the problem statement says put in one handicap space for every 8 parking spaces, do it, even if you are used to 2 handicap spaces for every 50 parking spaces.

Diving in to “problem solving” too quickly
Beginning work on a vignette before you thoroughly understand the program can lead you off in the wrong direction. Trying to solve a problem piecemeal, particularly on Section E, may lead you into a situation where you are not able to come up with a complete and workable solution. Getting too far into a solution without realizing that something simply will not work can be fatal. Don’t prematurely “paint yourself into a corner”. Pause to evaluate your solution strategically and verify its viability as you work.

Not using the problem statement and L.A.R.E. Reference Manual effectively
Consistently, one of the most common mistakes candidates make is not thoroughly reading and applying these clear directives.  Follow each and every direction explicitly! 

Getting so wrapped up in the problem statement that you forget implicit expectations for competencies and KSAs
For example, one of the vignettes in Section C requires you to locate land uses and elements given to you in the problem statement considering their relationships both to each other on-site and to off-site concerns (users, environment, function, etc.).  Candidates should not have to be told obvious expectations, such as:

  • Minimize or avoid pedestrian-vehicular conflicts
  • Minimize vehicular conflicts (No parked cars backing into major traffic flows.  Cars waiting for the drive-up teller or drop-off area should not trap parked cars trying to leave.)
  • Commercial areas do better in visible and accessible locations rather than tucked away inside the site or off on minor roads
  • Specific user needs and conflicts (e.g., children and traffic, parking relationships to use areas)
  • Common sense choices, like flatter areas for recreation areas and judicious removal of vegetation

Time management
Candidates often get stuck or lose track of how much time they spend.  You will have 5 hours to successfully complete 4 separate vignettes in C and in E.  How you divvy up that time in the exam is each candidate’s individual decision.  Working within time limits is a critical part of successful completion of the exam and thus should be a major issue when studying. Getting into the habit of regularly checking your progress against your remaining time is an essential part of good time management.

Listening to myths instead of to your own common sense and logic
There is lots of “advice” out there; some is good, whereas some can be detrimental.  How to know which is which?  Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How does it relate to health, safety and welfare (HSW)?
  • What will happen if I do (or don’t) follow this?
  • Would a competent landscape architect automatically do/not do this?
  • If I do this, does it instantly put my solution in violation of program or the L.A.R.E. Reference Manual?

An example of a common myth is “don’t take out any trees,”  Most competent landscape architects would try to protect all trees, but sometimes we have to sacrifice a few, especially in matters of HSW, such as siting a vehicular entrance to meet centerline setbacks. 

Wanting to make the “right” decisions
The purpose of performance vignettes is to test your ability to apply the KSAs--but also to discriminate between alternatives and make appropriate decisions.  So expect to be given situations where there is no one clear “right” entry point, circulation route, etc.  Passing vignette solutions are most likely “suitable” rather than “excellent”.

For example, to site an entrance road safely, you may have to take out existing vegetation.  Ask yourself how you decide which to lose?  Quality, quantity, ramifications?  Bigger trees or large masses of vegetation may be more valuable than small; minimizing the overall loss of vegetation is certainly preferable to removing large quantities. Maintaining vegetative cover on steeper slopes is preferable to having to come back and revegetate or do other erosion control measures.  Existing vegetation may already provide a buffer for poor views.

Assuming that the exam is based upon the scope of practice in your jurisdiction
In matters of stormwater management particularly, there is considerable variation in what landscape architects can do between jurisdictions.  So if your jurisdiction does not consider pipe sizing or impoundment integral to landscape architectural professional practice, start studying.  Again, consider this as working in a new place—you have to adapt to their codes and regulations and their scope of practice.  The Exam Specifications tell you what landscape architects do in this jurisdiction.

Incomplete labeling
Label everything important to your decisions.  You may need to do more than just identify.

  • Radii and other precise elements that you draw in your solution should be labeled with the mandated dimension included.  It makes certain you actually did it—and did it right (“Hmmm... that 15’ radius doesn’t look as big as the others…”), and it saves time when you are checking your final solution to make sure you met everything in the problem and the L.A.R.E. Reference Manual.  
  • Drawing intangibles but essentials, like mandated setbacks, ensures you do not inadvertently infringe upon them
  • Indicate the direction of traffic flow in roadways and parking lots you are asked to design.  It helps you be more accurate and communicative of your intent, especially if there are any one way traffic flows (this helps make sure you got the dimensions correct as well).

“My solution is supposed to look like what I would do in an office.”
No, it is supposed to show you can solve for a particular series of directions in a specific situation.  It is a test.  Prove to the graders you know what you are doing and what is important.

  • It is OK to include “analysis” information on the final solution!!!! (Key trees to be protected, important views to showcase or buffer, setbacks, etc.)
  • You get no points for pretty graphics.  Just make them legible.
  • If they give you graphic conventions (how to draw a certain thing), use those—not the ones you use back in the office
  • Health, safety and welfare are being tested—not great “design” or giving the client more than he wants

Relying on visual skills to determine key points, dimensions, etc.
Accuracy!  Precision!  And labeling to both help you get it right and to communicate!  This is important in C and E, but can cause you to make serious mistakes in E.  Examples include:

  • Make certain swales are deep enough.  That little wiggle or dip you drew in the contour may not measure out as adequate to contain the water entering the swale from its sides.  
  • Unless you are very fluent in grading, you likely lack the skills to conceptually throw down accurate contours.  Start with spot elevations for important points, then let them lead to accurate contours.
  • Use both spot elevations and contours and labels to indicate critical grades and slopes.  Don’t assume the exam graders will just find the high point of your swale—mark it and label it. Just as a contractor installing your paving would appreciate knowing the slope and direction of the cross slopes—mark it for checking yourself and for the grader.

Left out critical spot elevations
Get the basics clear during your practices and studying.  Top-of-wall, bottom-of-wall, key structural corners, drainage structures and pipes, adequate cover over pipes, etc.  The exam graders want them and you need them to make sure you did it correctly.

Assuming consistent detail or direction from exam to exam
While the KSAs tested remain the same within each exam period, you will not get the same performance vignettes nor the same objective questions as your buddy who took it last year.  The setbacks and maximum/minimum allowable slopes in the exam performance vignettes you take may not be the same as in the practice vignettes you used.  Therefore, be sure to read the problem statements carefully.  The problem statement may have a more stringent requirement than the Reference Manual, such as asking for more accessible parking spaces since the vignette’s site is a medical facility, or asking for a protective buffer of X feet around a significant large tree.

When Section C asks for “two significantly different solutions”, they mean different

  • Not a tweak, not a variation on the same concept—two substantially different conceptual diagrams 
  • But “different” does not mean you can let HSW, common sense, and program slide.  Both solutions need to be reasonably suitable given your site, context, and program.  Of course, they need not be equally suitable—just meeting the needs of the situation.
  • Two obvious critical criteria are rearranging land use or site elements and coming up with completely different circulation systems

Assuming people will stop and look both ways before crossing traffic lanes
One of the key HSW issues is minimizing or eliminating pedestrian-vehicular conflicts.  Real life people do jaywalk and dart out from parked cars to more quickly get to where they are going, and they do roll their wheelchairs behind parked cars within the traffic lanes.  But you should not design so that they have to.  The Reference Manual and often the Section C problem statements will have specific directions for how pedestrians should and should not interact with vehicles.  Making pedestrians cross major traffic flows is sure to cost you.

Failure to meet program and required elements (too small, not enough, etc.)
Make sure all program elements are drawn to scale.  Make sure you have enough.  Make sure drop-offs and other required spaces are adequate.  Are setbacks drawn correctly?


Other Resources

Many LARE review sessions are available, with varying emphases, length, and content.  A Section C and a Section E Workshop are available at each ASLA Annual Meeting. 

There are review manuals for sale by various entities that may be very useful.  Neither CLARB nor ASLA have participated in the creation of these and do not offer endorsements for such products.  CLARB and ASLA share information with each other regarding the exam and test preparation needs.  The CLARB website offers a number of free downloadable resources to help candidates better understand what to expect on each section of the L.A.R.E.  Be sure to understand the eligibility requirements for licensure, even before you begin exam preparation. 

ASLA has also prepared the following information for the graphic sections of the exam:
Common Issues and Frequent Vignette Mistakes: Section C
Common Issues and Frequent Vignette Mistakes: Section E


Education Programs