The practiced dramatic interpretation comes easy. The hitch is the interview.

So opined speech and drama finalists in the Deseret News/KSL-TV Sterling Scholar competition who performed before judges at East High School Wednesday afternoon."When you compete, you just do your character. Here, you have to show your character," said Melanie Rees of Taylorsville High School.

Students in 12 categories ranging from visual arts to mathematics gathered for final judging at the Salt Lake school.

While scholarships and statewide prestige await the winners, the atmosphere appeared more congenial than cutthroat.

"I've had more fun meeting people. These are all great students. We just kind of help each other out," said Elizabeth Theis, a speech and drama finalist from Weber High School.

Math finalist Christopher Mayfield of Olympus High School observed, "The real honor for this is at the school level. To make it this far is just icing on the cake. In mind's eye, it could be anyone's ballgame from here."

Picking the 12 winners in each category and a single winner for general scholarship is no easy task. There are no slouches here.

"Academically, they're all superbly qualified. When you talk to them, you begin to see some are more excellent than others," said math judge Jim Carlson, chairman of the math department at the University of Utah.

Winners will be announced at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 1, at Cottonwood High School.

No question, Sterling Scholars are honor students. Dismiss the notion that they're eggheads.

Take science finalist Christi Embry. She works in a laboratory that develops genetic markers that identify certain characteristics in livestock - desirable and undesirable.

She plans to go to Brigham Young University to study molecular biology and minor in ballroom dance.

Her family recognized her prowess early in life. She started clogging at seven and won a statewide science fair while in elementary school. The sophistication of her research has increased exponentially. Her first foray into science was an experiment with paper airplanes. Her Sterling Scholar presentation detailed genetic research.

The Sterling Scholar experience, which includes developing a comprehensive portfolio, has been valuable, she said.

"It's been a great chance to look my high school career and how it's benefited me in my senior year," the American Fork High School senior said.

The portfolio chronicles a student's academic career and extracurricular activities. Students who reach the finals undergo a 10-minute interview before three judges. Depending on the category, some contestants dance, play instruments, give speech, present visual art or solve math problems.

Wednesday's crowd of finalists were picked from 612 students representing 51 high schools along the Wasatch Front. At semifinal competitions, the field was whittled down to 15 competitors each in 12 categories.

Winners and runners up will share some $20,000 in scholarship money. Founded in 1962, the scholarship program is recognized nationally.

Each year, there are a few bumps along the way to the finals.

Competitors and judges alike braved record snows for semi-final judging on Feb. 25. On Wednesday, the challenge was navigating East High School's cavernous hallways and confusing room numbers.

Sometimes, the devil is in the details. Consider the plight of Taylorsville's Melanie Rees.

"After my first interview for Sterling Scholar, I walked into a closet. I thought it was the exit," she said, laughing at herself.