We present a theoretical study of the quantized spin wave spectrum in tangentially magnetized cylindrical thin magnetic dots. Low-energy spin waves in magnetic dots may be subdivided into four families: Damon-Eshbach like, backward like, mixed, and end modes. Frequencies and mode profiles are found using a variational approach based on carefully chosen trial functions. The variational method has the advantage that it can be used for large dots that are not practical to treat using numerical finite-element methods. Results for small dots generated using the variational method compare well with micromagnetic results. The variational method is demonstrated with an analysis of data obtained from experimental Brillouin light scattering data from saturated thin cylindrical Permalloy dots. Our approach allows for the definition of parameters describing important contributions to the spin wave energies. As an example, we show that a variational parameter ϵ provides a measure of spin wave localization near the dot border for one class of modes.