Wait, the shiny brochures showing everyone smiling and happy and diverse aren't REAL? Say it ain't so, say it ain't so!
I don't know that they are complicated. It's more that they have become businesses, and given that this is the US, they are heavily marketed. Financial aid and its relationship to reality is complicated.
Oh, the system in the UK is exponentially simpler than what we have here. They have UCAS, which means a single system for all applications, almost zero in application fees, one form for all universities, etc. And bullshit "extracurriculars" and classes you take just "to get into college" don't have much weight at all. Oxbridge even give a lot of weight to how you "think" (kind of similar to UChicago in that regard but that's something you won't find at many other US schools). It's an infinitely better system.
The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is how they predicate the decision on the results of tests you haven't taken yet.
Though if you're coming from the UK school system, it's up to teachers to issue good predicted results and for the student to have suitable reserve choices just in case they don't meet the conditional offer. UCAS sends people out to schools specifically to tell people to do this and not be idiots about it.
Fun fact: You cannot (at least you couldn't when I did it) apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year!
You still cannot, and there are requirements for applying if I recall correctly. It gets rid of the problem that we have here when you get 30,000 applications for a 1,200 person class, when probably over 15,000 of them had absolutely no chance in hell at getting in.
There's a girl from my (American) high school who got into Oxford this year. I'm insanely jealous. I wanted to apply but I missed the deadline (Oxford and Cambridge have their deadline about five months before everyone else so they can do interviews and shit).