One teen's uniquely emotional take on the letter "S" helped her earn a spot at Harvard—and serves as a reminder that not all families are the same.

By Beth Ann Mayer
May 12, 2021
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Credit: Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty (1)

Getting into college is never a small feat—especially in 2021. Applications are up 10 percent, and college waiting lists are longer and more competitive.

But one teen's powerful essay helped her earn a spot at Harvard. And now, by reciting her essay on TikTok, she's shining light on a struggle that's all too real for so many families—though spell-check services have yet to catch on.

Abigail Mack, who posts as av_mac on TikTok and lost her mother to cancer, shared her essay surrounding her grief, and her struggles surrounding society's interpretation of what it means to be a family, in a multi-part series. It's gone viral with millions of views in just a single week since posting.

"I hate the letter 'S,'" Mack begins as she recites her Ivy League-worthy prose on the video-sharing app. "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."

Mack continues: "'S' follows me. I can't get through a day without being reminded that while my friends went out to dinner with their parents, I ate with my parent. As I write this essay, there is a blue line under the word 'parent' telling me to check my grammar; even Grammarly assumes that I should have parents, but cancer doesn't listen to edit suggestions. I won't claim that my situation is as unique as one in 164,777, but it is still an exception to the rule—an outlier. The world isn't meant for this special case."

In later videos, she revealed that she threw herself into extracurriculars like volleyball and dance to try to fill the void.

The commenters agreed: They would have admitted Mack to Harvard, too. "I see why you got in," one person wrote. "This is what a good writer looks like," chimed in another. "Never got chills from an essay until now," someone said.

And it particularly struck a chord with one TikToker: "This is so beautiful, and I could relate 100 percent."

In fact, millions of parents (singular or plural) can relate. Gone are the days when nuclear families consisted of two parents (of the same race), two biological children, and a golden retriever. Some studies even suggest that the stereotypical nuclear family may have never really existed in the first place.

And unfortunately, in the last year, even more children became part of one-caregiver families—thousands of kids lost a parent or caregiver during the pandemic in New York alone. The sting of that is likely enough without having spell check flag the use of the singular form of "parent."

The biggest takeaway from Mack's viral TikTok? Words matter—and removing bias from spell-checking services can help people whose situations don't check a specific box feel less excluded.