Teenagers in Britain are expected to pick a course of study when they apply to university. Some universities do that in the US, too. But the horrifying thing is that, under the British system, they study nothing but that subject.
He majored in chemistry so he took mathematics classes offered just for chemistry students, teaching him just the mathematics that he needed to solve chemistry problems. He never took another history or humanities class after secondary (high) school!
Can you imagine being allowed only to take classes that you "need" for a profession you selected when you were 17-18?
Cambridge's smaller overall class sizes boost their ratings. I did suffer through a handful of lower-division classes with hundreds of fellow students. Berkeley is also so cash-strapped that some classes are cross-listed as both upper division and graduate classes at the same time. Those can be incredibly difficult classes with brutal grading curves.
Running service classes (courses offered by a department for students in other fields) specifically designed for each major is financially out of the question at Berkeley. But that forced me to take history classes alongside history majors, english with english majors, mathematics with mathematics majors, physics with physics majors, etc. In no way should that be considered inferior.
This cost-effective approach also allowed me to learn other disciplines in depth--and not just what I needed for chemistry. In fact, I discovered a love for useless ("pure") mathematics and persevered through some pretty tough classes (cross-listed as graduate-level classes) to earn a BA in mathematics.
A BA also requires an area of concentration outside of your major, which gave me an excuse to take four semesters of history and more coursework in language, literature and sociology.
I would never have had those opportunities under Oxbridge's narrower educational system.
High school seniors are making some tough decisions this season. But don't let the pursuit of a brand name education and fear of a few large classes dissuade you from a large and broad university.
A brand name education can also narrow your choices after graduation. College rankings factor in alumni career earnings. But, alumni of private colleges need to earn more so that they can pay back their higher student loans. Attending a large public university can give you the financial freedom to pursue careers that make you happy and/or make a difference to society in ways that aren't measured in dollars.
Part of the appeal of elite private schools is the hope that you will meet children of the elite that can help you later in life. A big public university educates a fair number of children of the elite, too. But, part of the value of Big State U is that you will meet people from all walks of life. Meeting people from public housing and the first in their extended family to attend university is also valuable.
One thing I can't argue with is that private colleges hand out higher grades for the extra money. See this and other illuminating statistics at gradeinflation.com. Think of that as an opportunity to write an extra personal statement (under "explain any circumstances affecting your academic record not covered in the other questions").
I'd like to end by making a shameless plug for chemistry--the central science bridging the biological and physical sciences--and for mathematics--the language of science. This liberal education has helped me make sense of the world. Technology inevitably changes, but the sciences, mathematics and historical perspective will never be obsolete.