When Abigail Mack sat down to write her college application essay in October, she had a sudden realization: She strongly disliked the letter “s.”
The consonant had stung since she was 12, when her mother, Julie, died of cancer. Each time she heard the word “parents,” or said it herself, she realized she only had one. In time, she found herself wanting to escape the heavy grief that seemed to cling to its snake-like curve.
Staring at a blank screen, Mack, a Bridgewater resident who attends Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, started to type.
“I hate the letter ‘S’,” she wrote. From there, the words poured out.
The result was a heartfelt narrative about how running from the letter “S,” a symbol for the pain of losing her mother at a young age, led her to trying to distract herself with a range of extracurricular activities and hobbies — some of which eventually became passions that motivated her to keep going.
The powerful essay ended up helping her — along with her many academic achievements — land a coveted spot in Harvard College’s class of 2025, at a time when the school saw a record number of applicants.
After learning she had been accepted, Mack shared her story and essay on the popular video app TikTok this month, where 60-second clips of her describing her essay and why she wrote it have now been viewed close to 20 million times. Her essay has sparked an outpouring of support from all over the world, with many posting that they, too, had lost a parent to cancer growing up.
“I’ve gotten so many bittersweet comments from people who have had similar experiences, saying I had put into words what they had been feeling,” she said. “It’s been so nice to feel like I’ve connected with so many people about that topic.”
Mack, 18, decided to share her essay about her mother on social media after initially posting her reaction to getting into Harvard in March — a tradition for many high schoolers overjoyed to be heading to college.
From there, Mack began posting other school-related content for her followers, and answering questions from people curious about her academic journey. In late April, she posted the first in a series of videos about her essay, including one that has now been viewed some 16 million times.
“I had been really hesitant to share it just because it’s so personal,” she said. “But I thought about it some more ... so I decided to share it.”
Mack said she had long known she would write about her mother, recalling her as a kind, empathetic, and brilliant woman who was adored in her community. She ran a dance company, Julie’s Studio of Dance, with Mack’s father, Jonathan.
“My mom set the greatest example for me,” Mack said. “She had a way of making everybody feel so special and unique. She was so upbeat, and positive, and brave.”
But when it came time to write about her, Mack ended up with a completely different essay than she hoped for, one that focused more on her own loss and less on how the experience shaped her life.
So Mack, a devout theater enthusiast, went back to the drawing board in October with a new perspective.
“I remember sitting down at my computer in English class — it was an assignment to write our college essays — and I thought about the difference between ‘parent’ and ‘parents’ and how much ‘parents’ is so much more common in our vernacular,” she said. “Once I came up with that hook, the rest of the essay wrote itself.”
It started like this: “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 0.0006 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.”
“’S’ follows me,” she wrote. “As I write this essay, there is a blue line under the word ‘parent’ telling me to check my grammar ... but cancer doesn’t listen to edit suggestions.”
She recalled how she unintentionally became the “busy kid,” filling the void left by her mother with theater, sports, and afterschool programs. Eventually, she realized there were a few activities in particular that made her happiest.
“I stopped running away from a single ‘S,’ and began chasing a double ‘S’ — passion,” she wrote of narrowing her focus to politics, theater, and academics. “I’ve finally learned to move forward instead of away, and it’s liberating.”
Mack, who also got into Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Dartmouth College, and Northwestern University, said she didn’t entirely expect the video series to take off like it has but is glad her story has resonated so widely.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” said Mack, who is interested in studying foreign policy and international relations. “I’ve been a little bit nervous about my [future] classmates at Harvard seeing the video.”
Mack’s father, who met Julie at Holy Cross in the late 1990s and still runs the family’s dance studio, said he has been touched by the reactions to his daughter’s essay and is glad she found light in the darkness.
“Writing the essay gave her a chance to reflect on this last period of her life,” he said. “I think it’s good for her to be able to recognize the good things that have come from that.”