"They were nice.

Only three little words. But they said a lot, especially coming from Michael Kim of East High School, who had just emerged from the final judging of the Deseret News-KSL Sterling Scholar Awards Wednesday at Skyline High School.They were just the words John Jorgensen wanted to hear as he sat nervously on the edge of his chair awaiting his turn before the mathematics judges.

The judges, especially their questions, were the hot topic among the 180 high school seniors competing for the honor of being selected the Wasatch Front's Sterling Scholars in 12 categories.

The winners will be announced April 12 at Cottonwood High.

Facing those judges in a 10-minute interview is what it finally comes down to after months, and often years, of preparation, so Wednesday's finalists were looking for any bit of help or reassurance as they waited.

"It was really fine. The judges were friendly, really open. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," said a beaming Rachel Mabey of Bountiful High as she walked out of the interview with the social science judges.

Hillcrest's Jenifer Montaque, who met the social science panel next, was glad for the report. But she confessed that her nerves were stronger than they had been in the regional judging two weeks ago.

Hillcrest drills its Sterling Scholar nominees in practice interviews. Before her interview Wednesday, Montaque reported that the school's practice was more difficult than the real thing.

Her opinion changed. "It was a lot harder than the regional but the questions were answerable," she said after facing the judges. She said they asked her opinion about current events such as human rights violations and Castro's plan for AIDS carriers in Cuba as well as a more philosophical one about Hamilton and Jefferson's ideas on who can best represent the people.

Michelle Blaisdell of Ben Lomond didn't rely on comments from other finalists emerging from the English interviews, nor did she have any practice interviews at school.

Blaisdell had help from her mom, Cathy, a 1966 Sterling Scholar in business, who offered support and advice along the way.

"Oh my gosh. I didn't think my nerves would be this bad for her, but I've been eating all day," confessed the anxious mom.

Bear River's Marchelle Anderson said the wait gave her the opportunity to "think of everything that they might ask me." She hoped that the industrial education judges might give her the opportunity to tell of her lifelong dream - and effort - to become a veterinarian and own a herd of cattle.

In some categories, finalists calmed the jitters by checking over the handiwork that they would display for the judges. Aimee Auernig of Bountiful High, who sees herself as an interior decorator/architect, had a large portfolio of house plans, while Jeffrey Martin of Hillcrest toted an armful of watercolors for the visual arts judges to appraise.

But while the students worried about the judges, the judges had one big worry of their own - how to pick one winner when every finalist was outstanding.

"You're here to pick the best of the best," Deseret News Promotion Director Keith West told the judges before the interviews.

The judges, many of whom offer their services to the Sterling Scholar Program every year, said their job is never easy.

"It's always the same frustration. They're all so wonderful," said Harden Eyring, executive assistant to the Utah commissioner of higher education and a social science judge.

Glenn Avery of the State Office of Education has judged the music finalists for the last 15 years. "The kids have improved so much in those 15 years. I know it's hard to believe, but they just get better and better."