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‘I hate the letter S’: This college essay on the loss of a parent helped a Bridgewater teen into Harvard — and went viral

"I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the S in parents isn't going anywhere.”

Abigail Mack. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

At 12 years old, Abigail Mack lost the “S.”

Her mother, Julie-Ann, had battled cancer as a teen, but the disease re-emerged several times as an adult and, in 2014, she passed away.

“My dad became just my everything,” Mack, of Bridgewater, told Boston.com. “I mean, he’s my best friend and I’m so fortunate to have him in my life.”

Still, the loss naturally had a lasting impact on Mack, now 18 years old and a senior at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton. She always knew the death of her mother would be something she wanted to discuss in her college application essay, but she was hesitant.

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There’s a stigma around writing about personal trauma in the application process, Mack said.

“It can come across as very just a pity party, and ‘Hey, look what I’ve overcome.’ And so it sometimes, it can almost hurt you more than helping you if it just is coming across as you trying to use that just to your advantage,” Mack said. “But I also didn’t want to just shy away from it because it has been something that’s been really important in how my life has turned out.”

How would she get across what she wanted to say?

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Working with her English teacher, Mack struggled through reworking the first draft.

“I just remember sitting down with a blank document, and I don’t know how I thought of it, but all of a sudden, I thought about the difference between parent and parents,” she said. “And I said, ‘I hate the letter S.’ And then I just started writing.”

“I hate the letter S. Of the 164,777 words with S, I only grapple with one. To condemn an entire letter because of its use .0006 percent of the time sounds statistically absurd, but that one case changed 100 percent of my life. I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the S in parents isn’t going anywhere.”

The essay has now been heard millions of times after various videos Mack posted to the social media platform TikTok, detailing what she wrote and reciting it for her followers, went viral, with one attracting 16.5 million views alone.

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Mack said the surprise popularity began with a previous video she posted, documenting her reaction the moment she found out she was accepted to Harvard University’s incoming freshman class; that post now has over 100,000 views. (Mack is among the 1,968 students admitted to the Class of 2025, who faced an extremely competitive applicant pool: total applications were up almost 43 percent over the past year.)

Commenters on the video — and on a follow up post on Mack’s academic “stats” — wanted to know all about her academic life, from the classes she took to what extracurricular activities she did throughout high school.

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Mack started a series of college help videos, but many viewers kept asking: What did she write about for her college essay?

Unsure if she wanted to disclose something so personal, she posted videos describing what she wrote, which have now garnered close to 2 million views total.

And with even more curiosity from viewers, she decided to post the whole thing.

“I didn’t think it would take off as much as it did, but it did, and here we are,” Mack said. “But it’s really surreal.”

In the essay, Mack wrote how when the world wouldn’t abandon the letter S, she tried to abandon it herself.

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When friends would be eating dinner with their parents, Mack threw herself into so many extracurricular activities she wouldn’t have time for family dinner — a strategy to avoid confronting the absence of S.

“I became known as the busy kid: The one that everyone always asks how do you have time? Morning meetings, classes, after school meetings, volleyball practice, dance class, rehearsal in Boston, homework, sleep, repeat. My specific schedule has changed over time, the busyness has not. I couldn’t fill the loss S left in my life, but I could at least make sure I didn’t have to think about it.”

When S came creeping back, Mack added another ball to the many she juggled, she wrote. Over time, she noticed she was drawn to more distinct interests, in theatre, academics, and politics.

Mack’s love of dance and theater comes from her mother, who opened a dance studio that her father still operates, she said. This past year, a burgeoning interest in politics brought her to phone bank for now-President Joe Biden, and eventually a fellowship position on the campaign to re-elect Sen. Ed Markey.

“I stopped running away from a single S and began chasing a double S: Passion. Passion has given me purpose.”

“I was shackled to S, as I tried to escape the confines of the traditional familial structure. No matter how far I ran, S stayed behind me, because I kept looking back. I finally learned to move forward instead of away, and it’s liberating. S got me moving, but it hasn’t kept me going. I wish I could end here, triumphant and basking in my new inspiration, but life is more convoluted.”

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Motivation, Mack wrote, is a double-edged sword. It keeps her looking forward, but it also prevents her from having to look back.

“Motivation is what keeps us at bay. I’m not perfectly healed, but I’m perfect at navigating the best way to heal me. I don’t seek out sadness, so S must stay on the sidelines. And until I am completely ready, motivation is more than enough for me.”

Mack now has over 100,000 followers on TikTok, and wants to use her newfound platform to try to enlighten and help others with the college application process.

But Mack, who said she has an interest in foreign relations, wants to make clear: There is no one way to get admitted to a school.

“I really want my message to be that you need to demonstrate your passions, whatever they are, because colleges want to see what you’re interested in — and they want to see you committed to those interests,” Mack said. “And if by sharing my personal story and my personal extracurriculars and classes, how I got to where I am, will help people see their own voice, then I’d say it’s been worth it.”

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