VIENNA -- Antonio Bandera took a last nervous drag on his smoke Friday as he readied himself for the grueling eight-hour entrance exam for elite Vienna Medical University. Making the cut's hard enough, he said, and this year his chances may be even smaller: The university is grading men and women differently based on gender.

"It's not right to give one sex or the other the advantage," he said. "How you score should determine how your chances are."

The university's policy is apparently unique in Europe. Those responsible for giving women a grading edge are aware that it could expose the institution to EU legal action, on charges of discrimination, but they argue that it's needed to even the playing field. Since the Vienna medical school introduced its current entrance exam six years ago, they say, women on average have scored significantly lower each time than men.

"There is no women's bonus," insisted vice dean Karin Gutierrrez-Lobos. Nearby, a long line of candidates clutching water bottles and snacks snaked their way toward the cavernous Vienna Fairgrounds Hall set up for 5,419 hopefuls vying for 740 places.

Critics say that Gutierrez-Lobos' point of view is debatable.

Student representative Christian Orashe said the new system is skewed precisely because it compensates for the fact that women score traditionally lower on average than men and the average is used as a departure point for how well each candidate scores. As a hypothetical example, if a man and a woman both score 130 points, the woman would be given a test grade of 117.7 compared to 114.8 for the man, based on separate averages of 102 points for males and 97 points for females.

The woman thus "is placed in the rankings clearly about 50 to 100 places ahead of her male competitor," Orasche said. That, he argued, is significant considering only 17 percent of those applying this year will be let in to study medicine or dentistry.

University statistics from last year document the conundrum: While 56 percent of those taking the exam were women, only 43 percent were accepted. Orasche noted that similar entrance exams in Germany and Switzerland have not revealed that significant a gap; he said education experts believe the problem lies within the country's secondary school system. In any case, he argued that the Austrian university's solution "results in a noticeable discrimination against both sexes."

"Female medicine students could be labeled as `quota women' in the future even if they did not profit from the gender-specific evaluation," he said.

Not only men taking Friday's exam agreed with that view.

"I don't want to be able to become a doctor only because I fit a quota," said Katarina Hobl. "I want to become a doctor on the basis of my achievements."

Dr. Henry M. Sondheimer, senior director for student affairs and programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said his organization has long "publicly acknowledged" that women tend to perform less well than men on standard multiple-choice tests of the kind being used by the Vienna university. He said that's why such tests in the United States are paired with personal interviews in evaluating who is accepted and who rejected. Austria's medical schools don't have interviews as part of the admissions process.

"They treat women individually, they treat men individually and the fact that there is a small (but) significant difference in these standardized test scores has no significant difference" in U.S. admissions, he said. As a matter of fact, he said, "interviews topped everything" in a survey of U.S. admissions deans asked about what counted most in getting into medical school.

Gutierrez-Lobos said interviews to gauge social competence – where women normally do better than men – are being considered in the future as Vienna and other Austrian medical universities work to standardize their qualification standards. But that is of little comfort for those sitting for the exams this year.

Orasche, the student representative, said his organization is ready to offer support all the way up to the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest arbiter. And Josef Marko, a law professor engaged by Orasche to research the issue said he already has found two rulings by the court that would support such a complaint.

Gutierrez-Lobos, in turn, said that the university is ready to defend its decision, setting the scene for a possible legal battle with Europe-wide implications.

"It's not at all a case of women being given the advantage," she said. "But if there are any legal uncertainties then this just will have to be decided in court."